With breeding farm animals, it’s all in the timing...
Barnyard Birds & The Bees
by Constance Breese
Lucky for me, Sandy Fisher at the FedEx office is a farm girl at heart. Growing up on Nip ’n Tuck Farm, her parent’s farm, she saw all kinds of things involving animals. So when I call to check on the arrival of sperm shipments and semen tanks, she has a good chuckle and agrees to keep track of it for me. When fresh sperm is flown in, we have only hours to prepare the recipient and implant it by artificial insemination.
There are two ways to breed farm animals: artificial insemination (AI) and pasture (natural) breeding. Farmers must decide which path to take to ensure farm efficiency and a crop of newborn calves, kids, lambs, or piglets. Each method has pros and cons.
Breeding and mating has to do with timing. Learning about it has a lot to do with learning the lingo and learning to recognize the behaviors. Females come into estrus (from the Latin word for frenzy) on a regular cycle. Estrus is when a surge in hormones makes a female receptive to a male; this is often referred to as being ‘in heat’.
As a college kid working on a dairy farm, I learned some of the lingo associated with breeding. The farmer wanted to know which cows were in heat so he could contact the vet to come and do AI. He asked me to tell him which cows were riding and which ones were standing. I didn’t know what riding was, but at least I had an inkling that all the cows standing up in the field were not all in heat! Standing in this context
refers to standing heat when a cow is so hormonally ready for breeding she will stand still while another cow mounts or rides her. The cows in standing heat are ready for insemination, the cows riding or mounting are close to being ready for breeding. Cattle are more likely to exhibit same-sex attraction behaviors than other domestic breeds.
Heat detection, determining when an animal is ready, can be challenging. It is important for success especially when using AI, because the sperm must be placed inside at just the right time. Sometimes I will use my portable ultrasound machineor I will palpate the ovaries by reaching inside the cow to check their readiness for insemination. There are other, less refined ways to detect when to breed, such\ as the use of a “buck rag” when breeding goats. A male goat (buck) has scent glands on his head that secrete a skunky odor.
A cloth can be wiped over the glands and kept in a jar. This buck rag can then be waved around the female goats (does) to see how receptive they are before introducing the buck.
When a farmer uses AI, the limitations and expenses of geography and transportation of the males are removed. One can shop for semen online (bullsemen.com) and choose characteristics that one wants to bring into the herd for growth, health, and size.
When delivery time is near, the mama animals need frequent checks to see if labor has started and how it is going. Farmers must tend to the newborn as well, so they don’t want this period of time to be too spread out. I recommend that farmers, recognizing they have little time for paper work, keep a standard calendar and just make notes on it. For example: “Betsy in heat,” “Bull in with Tootsie.” This will enable being ready for birthing.
Julie Olson, farm manager at the Farm Institute, recounted this story from last spring.
Three sows were due to farrow (give birth). When the staff came for the 10p.m. farm check, a sow was beginning to labor. She rapidly delivered ten piglets, but as she was finishing, a second sow began laboring, and more little pigs were born. All the hands were busily cleaning umbilical cords when sow three lay on her side and began straining and pushing out her piglets. Amazingly enough, all three sows delivered healthy
big litters, one, two, three. Hours later when all the sows were comfortable and all the piglets were nursing and well, the farm staff celebrated with milk shakes at midnight from Dock Street. They never tasted better than they did that night.
Keeping a male farm animal is something to consider carefully. It is a whole different ball game to house them—think raging bulls, ornery boars, smelly buck, and charging rams.
Male farm animals have distinctly different behaviors than their female counterparts. These differences are driven by the male hormone testosterone, which translates into increased body size, strength and aggression. So there are many more farms with cows than farms with resident bulls. The White Park bull at the Farm Institute is ninety percent agreeable; it’s the other ten percent that you have to worry about.
Ralph Packer of Northern Pines Farm has for the last 10 years been providing many Island farms with bulls to use for breeding beef cattle. Mr. Packer has learned over the years how to manage and house them safely. Ralph raises Hereford cattle, so he purchases bulls to complement his stock and to provide genetic diversity for the rest of the farms. Mr. Packer will deliver one of his bulls to Arnie Fischer’s farm on July
first. The bull will summer at Flat Point Farm, breeding the cows out there.
On Labor Day, Mr. Packer will pick the bull up and bring him to the next farm on his list. His bulls have bred cows at Nip ’n Tuck Farm, Morning Glory Farm, Mermaid Farm, and others. Pick up and delivery is free, as is the use of the bull.
Mr. Packer has never charged anyone for his “stud service.” He offers this as part of his way of giving back to the farming community.
A similar cooperative local spirit exists around sharing rams, bucks and boars from other farms. When Mr. Packer has been in need of help or hay, he knows he can call on his colleagues, thanks to his studs.