The other day I noticed an ad from a major vet supply company encouraging folks to stock up on calf pullers, since calving season was near on many cattle operations in the U.S. It was an interesting reminder that here on our small farm, we haven’t had to pull a calf in years. What’s calf pulling, why do calves need to be pulled, and how can it be prevented? Let’s discuss.
What is Calf Pulling?
Pulling a calf is the act of helping a cow give birth by pulling, particularly on the front legs, which are the first to exit during the birthing process. Calves are often pulled by hand using chains, which you attach to the front hooves and apply pressure each time the cow has a contraction and is actively trying to push the calf out. When pulling by hand isn’t enough, there are special tools like calf jacks that use leverage to apply extra pulling force. Care must be taken not to pull too hard, or injury to the cow and calf, including possibly death, can result.
Why Do Calves Need to be Pulled?
In our never-ending quest for bigger and better, the modern cattle industry has placed an emphasis on increasing calf weaning weights for the past half century. Most cow calf operations make their money by selling weaned calves, so every pound of increased weaning weight means a larger paycheck at the end of the season. Calf size and growth is a genetically heritable trait, meaning bulls can be selected to increase weaning weight of the calf crop. A bull that produces offspring who weigh more at the end of the year can be a great investment.
There’s just one problem with selecting for heavier weaning weights. They are very highly correlated with birth weights. In other words, a calf that weighs more at the end of the year is one that weighed more at birth. Bigger calves are harder to give birth to, and that brings us back to the whole birthing assistance and pulling of calves.
How Can Calf Pulling be Avoided?
Many cattle ranchers have accepted the fact in order to wean heavier calves, they are going to have to assist in pulling some at birth. Large operations often have multiple family members or employees who take shifts throughout 24 hour periods during calving season to check cows and intervene when assistance is needed. Some try to find so-called curve bender bulls, who produce offspring with low birth weights and high weaning weights, which can help a great deal. Bulls whose offspring tend to have low birth weights and don’t require pulling are often termed ‘calving ease’ bulls, and these types are often used on heifers, while the big producing bulls are used on the mature cows. All methods work, but personally, I’d prefer not to have to pull calves at all.
So that takes us back to our operation. I can’t recall having to assist with any of the last 100 or so calves we’ve had here on the farm, a large percentage of which were born out of heifers. As soon as was practical, we started investing in super calving ease bulls, without worrying much about weaning weights. We also began raising our calves to the yearling stage, putting less emphasis on weaning weight and more on yearling weight. Having a full time job makes it difficult for me to check on cows all hours, which was a big consideration. I also wanted to design the operation in a manner that required as few inputs and labor as possible. Our latest bull is a registered Red Angus from Beckton Stock Farm in Sheridan, Wyoming, and has been absolutely outstanding. Most of the calves from this past spring were up and running around before we even had a chance to see the cows in labor!
Pulling calves will always be a part of the cow-calf business, but some farmers like myself are doing everything in our power to avoid it. While I’d encourage using calving ease bulls if that fits your operation, I’d also be sure to have a set of calving chains around the farm, just incase. Like a lot of other tools, they’re great to have around, especially if you don’t have to use them!