Current Progressive Cattle digital edition

Breeding program postmortems

Melissa Bravo for Progressive Cattleman Published on 21 December 2018
Bred to young

In our rush to maximize economic return, many of us breed first-calf heifers as soon as we think they are ready.

Or, as frequently occurs, when a bull decides your attempt at separating it and an available female in estrus is feeble and demonstrates an ability to fly over the moon – destroying gates, fences or even barn walls in the process.

Unfortunately, research has shown, regardless of beef breed, first-calf heifers have an astonishing 50 percent or greater incidence of calving dystocia than their older counterparts. Countless research observations, like those conducted at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Nebraska, (MARC) and the Montana Experimental Station, have looked at the differences across breed and breed types of a heifer’s biological age versus its body score (or “fitness age”).

They discovered age at breeding, and at parturition, are secondary to knowing what the heifer weighed at weaning and at calving.

Knowing this, why do we breed too early? It is common knowledge most heifers will come into heat by 12 months, including Brahman. But in my experience raising purebred Angus, some heifers come into heat at 9 months, and bulls are fully capable of breeding at that age. The reality is: Very few of us have a group of same-age, perfectly conditioned 14-month-old replacement animals (the preferred age to breed European-type beef breeds).

Before your replacement heifers become first-time moms this coming year, let’s review what leads to dystocia problems from the point of view of my veterinarian and my “hope for the best but turned out to be the worst” dystocia call.

1. It was 4 a.m., April 21, 2018. “You bred too early,” said Doc when he arrived before sunrise to help. “No,” I argued. “She was born on July 25, 2016, and I had the yearling bulls penned up right here in this pen. She came in heat and jumped, climbed or crawled in on July 12, 2017. I thought about lysing her then but decided not to because she was a big heifer and well over 980 pounds.”

Fact: Heifer is only 20 months old. Lysing and giving them another 21 days on grass might make all the difference.

2. “You did not feed her, right?”, he asked while heading into the barn with a flashlight. “I did,” I countered. “I made sure she had extra supplements and protein. Her body score is good.”

Fact: Washed-out hay requires vitamin supplementation, and older cows take gain away from younger animals. All that weight gain “seen” is calf.

3. “You bred her to the wrong bull?”, he asked while passing me a stainless steel bucket, oxytocin, disinfectant soap, palpation gloves, transvaginal lube, a halter, leg chains and a calf puller. (Did I mention there was a 50-50 chance she was bred to her full brother?)

Fact: Pairing up calving-ease bulls with a desirable head shape with first-calf heifers can reduce dystocia problems. Don’t line-breed cows until their second or third calving if at all possible.

4. “Where is your calf puller?” Doc asked. I showed him my swollen hands from trying to pull the head through with just calf chains – to no avail.

Fact: Men have twice the grip strength and upper body strength of women. Get a man to help.

5. “Her cervix is not dilated enough for the head to come out. Big head … probably a bull,” he notes.

Fact: A cervix that will only open wide enough to get the front legs out, or does not dilate, requires intervention. A forced extraction at this point can jeopardize not only the calf but the cow as well. Twins, a breech, twisted leg or neck can also prevent the cervix from dilating properly.

6. “How long has she been in labor?” he asked. “Too long …” I said.

Fact: If a cow has not started actively calving within one hour of seeing its tail kinked, get it penned up and get help.

7. “Have you ever used a calf jack and chains before?” Yes, and I knew what to do.

Fact: If you have never used a calf jack and chains, ask your vet to demonstrate on a tame cow.

8. After a struggle, Doc said, “Well, at least we saved the cow …” But I wasn’t convinced, “What is wrong? She stood up on her own.”

Fact: Any time a calf assist occurs, do an internal exam on the cow. Even if the cow recovers, it may have torn her uterus and may be bleeding internally. Or the cervix may be torn or damaged and the cow may not breed back.

9. Doc’s last question was, “Can you butcher her?”

Fact: Oxytocin has no slaughter withdrawal time, but antibiotics do. A careful evaluation of the likelihood the heifer will recover is necessary. If the heifer is ambulatory and calmed down enough to slaughter (once its endocrine system settles), it can at least go into the family freezer as ground beef.


The dead calf born six hours after calving weighed 121 pounds. The cow had a hanging weight of 980 pounds and dressed out at 640 pounds. The cow was old enough and weighed enough (barely) to calve but was not able to surmount the genetic gain of too many high-performance-related dam and bull genes.  end mark

PHOTO: Bred too young, this mama cow ended up being culled. Photo by Melissa Bravo.

Melissa A. Bravo
  • Melissa A. Bravo

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