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Fitting the calving chores in with a day job

Pat McLaren is built like a yard of tap water. Tall and lean, he talks about raising cattle with an infectious enthusiasm. He calls his operation Cedar Lane Farm after the neat row of mature cedar trees that line the driveway leading up to his house. He grew up on the farm and after buying it from his father started in the beef cattle business in 1992 with 15 Charolais crossbred heifers. “Farming is what I love to do,” he says, “and I’m going to keep doing it as long as I’m able.”

Pat farms in the hill country between Peterborough and Trenton in Southeastern Ontario. He keeps 25 cows that are mostly Gelbvieh/Charolais cross with some Simmental and Red Angus mixed in. The home farm is 40 acres, but most of the land he farms is rented.

“I would like to own more land,” he explains, “but right now it’s too expensive and it’s pretty easy to rent land around here. There are a lot of city people who own land and quite a few cash croppers who have land that’s too rough to crop but makes good pasture. We rent about 85 acres for pasture and 60 acres for hay plus we have hay ground here at home.”

In addition to farming Pat works full time in construction, routinely putting in 10-hour days at the jobsite. It means that he is up and on his way early and has chores to do when he gets home in the evening.

“When it comes to working out,” he says, “the two hardest times of the year for me are haying and calving.”

Pat likes to calve in March. He has a small barn set up with gates that can make four pens. Behind the barn there is a fenced one-acre field that rises to the crest of a small hill. When the cows are due to start calving he moves them into the field. He also moves in a homemade 16×10 foot calf hutch that he positions on higher ground with the open side facing south to catch the sun. Every day or two he beds the top part of the field with straw.

“When I’m calving I’m usually up at 4:30 in the morning,” he says.” I do a few chores and check the cows. If I see a cow that might be close, maybe she’s off by herself, I’ll put her in one of the pens in the barn. If her water has broken, or if I can see the feet, I’ll stay, but otherwise I’ll head off to work. The people I work for wouldn’t be too happy if I was always showing up late.”

Pat and his wife have two teenage sons. Philip, the youngest is 17 and is still in high school.

“Philip doesn’t catch the school bus until about 8:30,” says Pat, “so he keeps an eye on them until he leaves and then again when he gets home.”

Though a few of Pat’s cows calve in the barn the majority of the calves are born outside on the straw pack. If there are no problems he leaves them outside where they quickly find the shelter.

“The shelter works great,” says Pat. “I use it for calving and then when the herd goes to grass I take it to the pasture where I use it to creep feed the calves.”

The shelter sits on two 6×6-inch squared cedar beams and has a four-inch steel post mounted across the opening to keep the cows out. It has a steel roof and barn boards on the sides and back. To move it short distances he pushes it with his loader tractor or pulls it with a chain. To move it longer distances the shelter is sturdy enough that he can put it on a wagon.

“I want to build another one,” says Pat.

“Even though I’m not around all the time the way we calve works pretty well. One year we had three sets of twins. I never saw any of them born but the cows got them sorted out and started on their own.” Then he adds, “I don’t like twins though.”

Pat likes to calve in March because by the end of May when they go to grass the calves are old enough to eat forage. By this time they average around 250 pounds.

“Before they go to pasture at the end of May we vaccinate them with a live vaccine,” he explains, “and we also dehorn them and castrate the bulls. Then a couple of weeks before they go to the calf sale in November we vaccinate them again. The last calves we sold averaged 680 pounds for steers and heifers.”

Because he has an off-farm job, Pat focuses a significant amount of his herd management on breeding and genetics. Most of his cows are a Gelbvieh/Charolais cross because he believes it gives him a moderate-framed female with good mothering abilities. The Simmental and Red Angus in his cow herd comes from bred heifers that he buys occasionally. He is also very cognizant of calving ease when he buys a bull.

“We use purebred bulls,” says Pat, “and when we’re looking we really do our homework. I look at all the EPDs for birth weight, milking ability and growth rates. Over the years we’ve used both Gelbvieh and Charolais bulls and that gives us the tancoloured calves we like.”

The McLarens have a few purebred Gelbvieh females in their herd that they bought as calves to show. Both Pat’s sons Jeremy and Philip showed cattle. In 2005 Philip had the champion Gelbvieh heifer at the Royal Winter Fair.

“I hope Philip can farm,” says Pat. “I know he would like to but he’s probably going to have to work off-farm to do it. A young person can’t just walk out and buy a farm.”

Pat is 47 years old and his plan is to gradually expand his herd until he can retire from his construction job and farm full time.

“I’d like to have 35 or 40 cows,” he says. “I don’t know what the fellows I work with at construction do when they go home, but I can’t wait to get back at night to do chores and check the cows.”

One of the big days on Pat’s calendar is the date in November when his calves go to the auction barn. He is very proud of the quality of his cattle and if he can get the day off from work he likes to go and watch them sell. They usually bring some of the top prices at the sale and the owner of the auction barn is always encouraging him to expand.

“He’s always telling me to put that hammer down and get 150 cows,” explains Pat with a grin. “I would love to do it but it’s just not feasible now. But I’m going to keep at it because I think things are going to get better.”

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