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Wednesday, June 01 2016

Charles Darwin didn't have to travel to the Galapagos Islands to find enough data for "On the Origin of Species," he could have just spent more time on a ranch to see natural selection at work. The strongest, smartest, fastest, and luckiest survive to reproduce their genes, and make no mistake, luck tends to favor the smartest.

Mother Nature is cruel, and the innocent pay for the mistakes of their parents. As humans, we are forever interfering with nature, but doing so brings its own responsibility. If you're gonna play with Mother Nature, be ready to accept the consequences to upsetting natural selection. If you feel so sorry for the barn swallows who built a nest in the tongue of the horse trailer where the cats and dogs could get the babies that you build a safety pen of panels around that area, and refuse to use the horse trailer until the babies fly away, and pen up most of the cats, then be prepared for the fact that you will either continue to breed stupid birds or you'll get your heart broken when a cat gets the birds anyway.

And while playing God and rescuing wild animals from their poor choices or the poor choices of their parents doesn't necessarily cost anything more than heartache, the choice of whether or not to interfere with natural selection when it comes to livestock hits you straight in the wallet.

It really depends upon the livestock you raise. If you choose to raise dairy goats, kiss any kind of ranching in harmony with natural selection goodbye. These animals are so high maintenance that you must intervene. As farmers we have selected for animals with high milk production, not their ability to survive on their own.  Accept it, or don't raise dairy goats.

With sheep and cattle it's a different story. We try to choose breeds with excellent mothering skills, and select individuals within those breeds who are good mothers. The terrain, climate and predator load in some places can enable the mothers, hiding their poor choices. Other places are less forgiving. On our ranch there are very few chances. If the humans are not there to catch the mistake quickly, natural selection swings a hard hammer fast. Calves who stray too far away from the herd can find themselves on the menu at someone else's party. And as poor IB1 apparently found out the hard way, if you choose to give birth right beside the creek, your baby can wobble over the edge and be swept away.

The idea of an innocent calf drowning is heartbreaking. The monetary loss is significant too. And this is where as ranchers, we dance that delicate waltz with Natural Selection. We can choose to harden our hearts, throw the cattle out there, and let the mothers and calves suffer their own poor choices. This insures the strongest, the brightest, and the luckiest survive to reproduce. This can also be very expensive.

On Memorial Day $700-$1000 floated downstream. It appears that IB1 had a successful birthing approximately 3-6 feet from the edge of the creek. We found the afterbirth there too. There was no evidence of predators, just the easy roll of the water and the mournful bellows of a cow calling her calf.

On the other hand we could choose to micromanage the livestock and lock them up until the calves are big enough to handle the predators.  This is also very expensive because you have to haul a lot of feed to them and they still will not have the bloom that pastured cattle have.

And here is where we dance. Because we bred some of the cows to a large-boned Charolais bull and there was the possibility that we would have to assist birthing, we kept those girls penned until their babies were successfully on the ground and very mobile. We hauled gobs of feed to them, and yet still watched the mothers drop weight. The calves got fatter and fatter and the mothers got skinnier and skinnier. It just didn't make sense to continue to haul money in feed when the cattle are surrounded by pastures with tall grass, so as soon those Charolais-bred cows had calves, we turned the entire herd loose. On knee-deep grass the calves got fatter and their mothers started gaining weight again, but every day we drove out there and counted calves. And every day we checked expectant mothers. Because one of those cows was a first timer, this past week we drove out twice a day to check IB1.

There are limits to what we can do though. IB1 had at least 350 acres to have her baby. Most of this was a safe variety of heavily wooded, partially wooded, and open pasture. Instead, she chose to give birth in a heavily wooded area 3-6 feet from the edge of a 15 foot drop-off into rolling water. Seriously?!! What the heck??!!!

That's called Natural Selection.

I hate it. More than the loss of the money, I hate the thought of that innocent baby drowning. I hate listening to IB1 call for her lost calf.

And so we go back to the Natural Selection Waltz. How much do we intervene in their lives? Some decisions are obviously our responsibility. If we choose to breed to a big bull, then it makes sense that we have to help with calving. But after that danger has passed, how much micromanaging do we do? We are running a cow/calf operation in an area that has a very forgiving climate, but unforgiving predators and an unforgiving creek. If the cattle are loose on the ranch, it is physically impossible to micromanage their lives. They have everything they need to survive and thrive here. But they, and we, have to live with their poor choices regarding the predators and the creek.

IB1 will breed back in a month or so. If she loses her calf next year then she'll be sold with that calf crop because she needs to be on a ranch that isn't as wild as ours. Maybe she has learned something. I don't know how much cows think about these things. IB1 had an excellent mother herself, so hopefully it was just a novice mistake on her part. From the sound of her calls she clearly didn't just abandon her calf. I feel bad for IB1, but I feel worse for the calf who was an innocent victim of the Natural Selection Waltz.

Posted by: forensicfarmgirl AT 12:35 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email

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