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The Mistakes I Made When Breeding Arabelle, Our Milk Cow

Arabelle The Milk Cow

Once again I am sharing my ‘confessions of a first generation farmer.’ You don’t know what you don’t know, and that is why I am so passionate about sharing what we are learning via social media and now these blogs, because we (mainly I) make SO MANY MISTAKES! And it doesn’t matter that I got a four year degree, or that I have worked on farms, because if you don’t have someone showing you the ropes you are going to stumble into trouble along the way. I want to be that someone for you, because building a farm is a painstaking process full of mistakes, most of them costly. I am here to save you time and money. So, check out what I did wrong breeding our milk cow, Arabelle.

When I wanted to breed our heifer, our first milk cow, the only thing I was focused on was understanding when she was in heat and not missing that window to artificially inseminate (AI) her.

We did add a steer to our tiny herd so Arabelle would stop escaping to be with the neighbors cow. She did that a lot. I put up flyers. I am not kidding.

So fun fact, when a cow is in heat, she is actually the one doing the mounting, not the other way around. I did remember that from my animal science class. So when I saw Arabelle mounting Bob Burger, I called up ole Bobby who is the Select Sires representative for our tiny rural town, and he showed up the next day.

Also something I did not consider… You should probably have a cattle head gate or a stanchion.

When ole Bobby showed up he asked where my heifer was and I told him in the pasture. I had never seen AI done before and I had no idea I needed her in something that contained her. He laughed at my inexperience. And it was a laugh that was more along the lines of ‘Oh boy, what did I get myself into.’

I proudly changed his attitude however when I ran to get Arabelle from the field and led her down the hill to our barn with lead rope and halter. 70 year old Bobby was impressed. And he exclaimed “Well she is just like a dog!” I proudly walked past him with Arabelle on display, convincing myself his faith in me was at least a little bit restored.

Because we weren’t at all prepared and didn’t have any other way to hold her, we simple tied her head up with a lead rope through an eye bolt in the stall. She did relatively well with the AI and didn’t move as much as any of us expected. Again I think Bobby was pleasantly surprised. The whole process took less than 30 seconds, it was so quick. Just involved a chryo tank, a straw, and an old, experienced man with a long glove. He hand wrote me my slip of a receipt for $50 and told me Select Sires would contact me for my payment.

I knew based on what the breeders of Arabelle told me that because she was a mid size milk cow (A2A2 mid size Jersey and Low Angus cross) that the bull semen we chose needed to be on the smaller size to make the birthing process easier. Bobby helped me pick out a bull that was known for early calving, up to three weeks early, to keep the calf on the small side.

Back to the point of not looking up dates or planning, a cow’s estrus cycle is every 18-24 days. Arabelle was bred on February 24th, with a 9 month gestation period that means she would be due near Thanksgiving. Arabelle gave birth on November 27th, on one of the coldest first days of winter we had, naturally, because this is what livestock does. If you are new to breeding, suspect that your animal will go into labor on the coldest, windiest, rainiest, storming days because that really is just what they do. 

I kept a close eye on Arabelle. I checked her multiple times per day for signs of labor. I didn’t really know what I was doing but you do need to make sure you are around in case of an emergency. I was in the driveway and I heard Arabelle make a sound from way down by the barn but I recognized that it was not her normal sound.

I rushed down to the pasture and as I expected, she gave birth. I had just missed it. The calf was still soaking wet and the placenta had not yet passed. She was a beautiful Momma with no complications with birth. The problem was, she was laying up against our horse board fencing near the creek and when the baby calf stood up, she actually stood up on the other side of the fence and they could not access each other! That first hour it is critical for Momma to be able to lick off and clean her baby, form a bond, and most importantly for the calf to nurse that life sustaining colostrum. This is crucial for their chance of survival. 

I of course thought we would have completed fencing projects much quicker than reality or budget allows. Cows should not be in with horse fencing. No animal should except horses. Had I not been home our sweet heifer calf who came to be known as Dolly, would have died.

I had to climb my body between horse boards and somehow get this several hundred pounds, wet, slippery calf back through the fence to her distressed Momma.

A quick call to the neighbors. A bloody coat. It was a mess but all in all a smooth and quick rescue operation. Then there was the problem of impending weather so we had to get Arabelle and Dolly into the freshly bedded stall for the next several days to protect the young calf from wet weather.

When I led Arabelle away the calf was confused and did not follow. Ultimately, my neighbor and I had to pick up this very heavy calf and carry her up the hill to our barn and get Arabelle to follow. After a couple hours we finally got them settled.

I kept them in the large stall, protected from the weather, for over a week.

My plan was to calf share. My plan was ALWAYS to calf share. But I once again failed to plan so I will have to share where I went wrong in a future post. But it’s worth mentioning that I kind of assumed that Arabelle would have a little bull calf that would become a steer that we would raise to eventually fill our freezer.

But instead we have a 3/4 Angus, 1/4 Jersey heifer calf. So now I will breed Dolly to an Angus with sexed semen to ensure a bull, and I will breed Arabelle with Jersey sexed semen so we will have a heifer calf that will continue growing our milking herd. I should have thought of sexed semen but I was so inexperienced and only thinking about timing for the AI and size for the safety of Arabelle’s delivery.

The more you know.

This time around I will breed Arabelle during early summer, preferably June, so we can have a spring baby around March.

For now we have a milk fat calf that has never been separated from her mother because I don’t have fencing in place. Again… Another mistake, another story (or blog rather) for another time.

Always learning,


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