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Some calving ideas from Ontario VBP co-ordinator Dan Ferguson

Dan Ferguson is a bundle of energy. In addition to running a medium-sized cow-calf operation he is a staff member at the Ontario Cattlemen’s Association where since 2003 he has been Verified Beef Production/Quality Starts Here co-ordinator and CCIA liaison. For VBP he travels the province conducting seminars on recommended practices. As CCIA liaison he helps producers who have problems with lost tags and age verification and animal identification issues. His cell phone is constantly ringing and he appears to thrive on it. He is well equipped for his work at OCA because by his own admission he has the gift of the gab.

“I’ve always been the one to stand up and talk,” he says. “It started in public school with student council and continued through high school. I was active in student politics and class valedictorian and it was the same at agricultural college. If there is a group of people talking and there seems to be an idea floating around I’ll blurt it out. Then it’s my idea and if it doesn’t work out then I’m the one who gets blamed. But, I don’t mind.”

Dan is the third generation of his family to operate his farm in Eastern Ontario’s Northumberland County. He and his wife have three sons and a daughter ranging in age from 15 to 22 and they all help out. The farm was established by his grandfather in 1909 and one of Dan’s perks is that he gets to live and work in a beautiful place. The house and farm buildings are on top of a hill and from his barnyard he can see about five kilometres across a valley checked with forests and fields. The home farm is 40 hectares that he uses primarily for pasture. He rents other land nearby to grow hay. There are 45 cows in the herd. Most are Limousin X Angus that he breeds to a black Limousin bull.

“It gives me well-muscled, mostly black calves,” he says.

Dan’s cows start calving in March and coming up to calving time he tries to make sure his cows are in the best possible physical condition. He feeds them in a way that they have to walk to water so they get plenty of exercise.

“They’re not just lying around getting fat,” he says. “We want them in good shape so they can push out the calf clean right away and get the calf started.”

He also tries to maximize the quality of the cows’ mineral supplements and saves his best hay to feed before calving.

“As we put hay in the shed,” he explains, “I keep a record of what hay came from what field and whether or not it got rained on.” As it turns out, keeping records is a substantial part of what he discusses in his OCA seminars.

At calving time Dan uses the hilly terrain of his farm to his advantage. There is an old bank barn and two pole sheds in a line along the top of a ridge. One of the sheds is a loafing barn where he makes pens using gates to deal with calving problems. The other shed is for hay storage. Running down the hill from the buildings there is a small pasture that he uses as a calving field. He keeps the cattle off the field the rest of the year to limit the buildup of pathogens in the soil.

“To feed the cows,” he explains, “I take the strings off a round bale of hay and roll it out down the hill. Most days I don’t even have to start the tractor. What the cows don’t eat gives the calves a clean place to lie down. As I take the hay out of the shed it makes a space that I set up as a creep for the calves that the cows can’t get into. It’s amazing how quickly the calves will find it when the weather’s dirty.”

To deal with a calving problem or a calf that hasn’t suckled, Dan uses the loafing shed that is beside the hay shed. It is set up with pens made out of gates.

“I don’t keep frozen colostrum,” he says. “I use a synthetic substitute. Most often I just try to get a few squirts into the calf and then go to the house for a coffee. By the time I get back it’s usually started on its own. If a calf hasn’t sucked it doesn’t know what milk is and if you get into a fight it has no idea what you’re trying to do. As a last resort we’ll restrain a cow to start a calf.”

What Dan does on his farm is scrutinized more closely than most other producers because of his work as an advocate for on-farm food safety. His Verified Beef Production seminars describe a comprehensive approach to on-farm food safety that involves record-keeping as well as animal and risk management practices that at first sound onerous to some farmers.

“It’s not uncommon,” he admits, “that when I’m giving a seminar someone will stand up and say, ’I’d like to come to your farm!’ I tell them that we look at our own farm as a work in progress so we’re constantly looking for ways to improve.”

Though Dan keeps detailed records at calving time his method is low-tech. He always carries a VBF pocket record book where he writes down all the calf’s information including the CCIA identification number and any treatments given to the calf.

“At the seminars,” explains Dan, “we encourage producers to use two tags. The first is the CCIA radio frequency identification tag and the second is for herd management. This can help identify the calf within the herd and acts as a cross-reference to the CCIA tag if it gets lost. I always have the pocket book with me in my coveralls. When it comes to vaccinations and treatments it tells me what I did and when I did it, but it is also a record of what worked. I don’t put my records on a computer. Some producers do but it’s not something we stress. A lot of older farmers are not that comfortable with the computer. It might be something their children or even grandchildren are more likely to do. The important thing is that the records are complete.”

Dan is a proponent of a spring vaccination protocol administered before the cattle are turned out to grass. By this time most of his calves weigh about 250 pounds. His advice is to consult a veterinarian to develop the protocol.

“When we process the cattle,” says Dan, “I get my 15-year old daughter to do the record keeping. She’s more elaborate in describing what is going on.”

Dan is as enthusiastic about helping other beef producers as he is about the work he does on his own farm. He is extremely well known in the province and when he gives seminars he recognizes most of the people in the room. During his presentations he refers frequently to his own operation, not because he thinks he does everything right, but because he thinks the producers relate better to another farmer.

“It’s amazing,” he explains, “how forthcoming farmers will be when they are talking to another farmer rather than a vet or a bureaucrat. It gets all kinds of discussions going about herd health and management issues. They start talking about what worked for them and sharing ideas. That’s the fun part for me.”

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