Tuesday, July 16, 2024
HomeLivestockBeef CattleGrafting Baby Calves Part 1: Should you do it?

Grafting Baby Calves Part 1: Should you do it?

Here on the ranch, calving season is generally a pretty happy time. My business model includes buying pregnant cows. These are cows that I don’t really know very much about, as in, we might have an estimate about what month she might calve in, and we know what color she is, but beyond that – pretty much nothing. Even with that, we have very little trouble with these cows, perhaps because we provide them with a safe, low-stress environment and let them act like cows.

All that said, on occasion the worst thing happens: we lose a calf during birth or shortly thereafter. When that happens, I have some choices to make. If the cow has died too, well, that’s the ball game. But if the cow is alive and healthy and the calf simply died due to some unforeseen problem, well, it’s time to go out and find a calf to graft onto that poor cow so she can stay in the herd and be a successful partner here on the ranch.

First, let’s do the numbers.

A seriously pregnant commercial cow in my neighborhood might be worth $1,000 or maybe even $1,200. If she loses a calf her value is likely cut in half, as she immediately becomes a butcher cow. If we can successfully graft a replacement calf onto her, she now returns to her original value. In other words, turning a butcher cow into a pair can bring a big increase in value.

Finding a replacement calf.

No, finding a good replacement calf.

Last week I purchased a replacement calf at auction for $170. This week, similar calves were sold for $200. For the sake of easy math, let’s just use the latter figure. So, assuming all goes well, I had to spend $200 to increase the value of my mourning mother cow by $600. Pretty good deal, I’d say.

At the same time, there were plenty of other calves to choose from at the auction. Most were dairy calves – Jerseys, Holsteins or some kind of dairy cross. Oddly enough, several of these sold for $200, but for the most part they were less than $50. But here’s the thing: successfully raising a Jersey calf for six months results in a product that might be worth $100, perhaps even less. In other words, many dairy calves never become very valuable at all. And keep another thing in mind: There are often significant time, labor and vet costs associated with grafting, and those costs are the same whether your new calf becomes worth $60 or $600. That’s something to factor in.

When I was a boy, it was easy to buy day-old calves at the local dairy. That is no longer an option, as most of those local dairies are long gone. If you still have local dairies, well, great. But keep in mind that a locally-bought dairy calf still grows up to be a dairy calf – a product with limited value.

The important thing then, is to choose a calf that truly increases the value of the cow because it is something valuable in your market.

But what about that cow?

Maybe I should back up a bit. Before you go buy a replacement calf, ask yourself some serious questions. Is this cow worth the effort? Is she worth the risk? Is this a gentle, maternal cow who is mooning around looking for her lost calf, or is she a real nasty old rip that hates you, hates your dog and hates being held in close quarters? Is she trying to just get on with her life and get back to the herd? My advice here (if she has those sociopathic personality tendencies) is to just lick your wounds and let her be a butcher cow. You will avoid a bunch of heartache and truly, you won’t miss her much when she’s gone.

Next week in part 2 – grafting steps

We’ve looked at the economic and safety factors of grafting a calf. In the next part in this series we’ll look at all the steps involved in fooling the cow into believing that the new calf is, in fact, her dead baby come back to life.

Happy grazing, and happy calving, too!

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John Marble
John Marble
John Marble grew up on a terribly conventional ranch with a large family where each kid had their own tractor. Surviving that, he now owns a small grazing and marketing operation that focuses on producing value through managed grazing. He oversees a diverse ranching operation, renting and owning cattle and grasslands while managing timber, wildlife habitat and human relationships. His multi-species approach includes meat goats, pointing dogs and barn cats. He has a life-long interest in ecology, trying to understand how plants, animals, soils and humans fit together. John spends his late-night hours working on fiction, writing about worlds much less strange than this one.

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