By Alan Newport. From Beef. Originally posted: March 31, 2016. Original Article.


Late last week I noticed an article about a rancher in northeast Oklahoma dragged to death by a cow he was trying to help calve.

As you might guess, he was entrapped in the obstetrical chains and dragged to death when the cow bolted. Whether he was experienced or novice, old or young; whether he looped the chain over his own wrist or truly became tangled, I do not know.

I have several times prayed for his family since then, but on reflection it seems his misfortune could serve as a warning to everyone in calving season: Cattle are powerful animals, and no matter how docile we think them, they can hurt us badly.

We all know this, of course: Hence the cowboy penchant for telling stories about “wrecks.”

But this rancher’s misfortune really drives home that point. It says be careful. Never think that cow or heifer can’t get up and run away. Never tie the calf or the cow to something you can’t get loose from, like your body.

Obviously we need to care for our animals, but our own safety should always be placed above theirs.

I think there is a less-obvious lesson, too, but one that may be very important in the long run.

Our industry has come to think the way we do things is the only logical pathway, and one of those orthodoxies has been our unabated drive since the 1960s to produce bigger and bigger calves. It has not necessarily produced more profit, and it has brought about a host of problems. One of those was the much higher dystocia rates in those early years from Continental crossbreeding on much smaller English cows. I contend we are still seeing higher rates, although they have abated a great deal as cows have gotten much larger incidental to big-calf selection.

The data from USDA’s National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) and from numerous university studies clearly shows losses from dystocia are highest in first-calf heifers (20% average) and as the cow ages, she moves toward lower levels of dystocia (1.5%).

NAHMS data also warns us 30% or more of all calf losses still are tied to dystocia, and that delayed estrus is the probable outcome of dystocia. Considering the most important economic function of a cow is to produce and raise a live calf every year, all this is problematic.

I have been unable to find studies showing dystocia rates of 50 years or more ago, although they may exist. Therefore I have nothing historical with which to compare. Yet one thing appears crystal clear, and researchers all over the country state it again and again: Dystocia is caused primarily by relative oversize of the fetus to the size of the dam. From this I reason we have caused ourselves and our animals a lot of undue grief; maybe we continue.

Considering the need to select more grass-efficient cows, and the trend toward downsized cattle that portends, all the parts of this puzzle fit together for me.

If we have fewer calves to pull, which would arguably increase profitability, and if we increased safety for ourselves alongside that, I can’t see anything but gain.