Calving season A 40 year journey

Story and photos by Joseph L. Murphy, ISA member communications manager

After glancing at the TV one last time Duane Ohnemus pulled the laces of his leather boots tight. The TV is the first thing he glances at when he wakes up this time of year and the last thing he sees before going to bed. While most of America is watching the morning news or a recorded mini-series, Ohnemus is watching a live feed of cows in the barn.

Ohnemus, an Iowa Soybean Association member from Milo, and many other farmers and ranchers across the country are in the midst of the 2016 calving season —a two to three-month process that demands constant attention and braving harsh weather.

Duane Ohnemus climbs into his tractor while moving hay to feed his cattle.

A video feed of the barn provides the ability to keep an eye on his "maternity ward” while saving trips to the barn for emergencies. He is quick to say that the technology helps, but it will never replace the welfare checks that are needed to make sure cows are progressing in the birth process, and calves are healthy.

“Normally one of us wakes up in the middle of the night and flips the TV on to check it,” Ohnemus says. “Hopefully, that makes it so we don’t have to go outside to the barn. You can get pretty grouchy this time of year from the lack of sleep.”

On this chilly day, Ohnemus pulls his hood over his head while he walks across the farm yard but is thankful that the weather is mild for February.

"This time of year is a real challenge, and I can’t afford to get sick or get injured" - Duane Ohnemus
The tag on this calf identifies its mother, the year born and the birth order for the year.

This time of year Duane is up at 5:00 and works until midnight.

Even mild weather can’t help with the daily grind of checking calves, providing bedding and of course twice daily chores. The hard work over Ohnemus’ 40-year career has taken its toll on his knees and back.

“If a 70- or 80-pound baby calf is stuck in the mud you have to lift them, and that’s a load when you are in the mud too,” he says. “It’s hard on your back if the calf is squirming around. You end up lifting the way you shouldn’t.”

He went on to say that he wears a lumbar support belt and is careful as possible because he can’t afford to be sidelined this time of year.

“The boys are older, but they can only help after school,” he said. "This time of year is a real challenge, and I can’t afford to get sick or get injured. You have to figure out a way to tape it up, strap it up or whatever and go back out because you just have to. Agriculture is a young man’s sport.”

It’s hard not to see the physical toll the work takes as he gestures with his hands. Hands that have calluses and are wrapped with tape from past injuries.

But Ohnemus doesn’t spend much time focusing on his cuts and bruises. He’s more interested in making sure his cattle are fed, have access to water and the new calves are content.

“A lot of guys don’t do as much as we do. Some are just running a commercial operation,” he says. “They will have 40 cows buy a bull and calve later. You can make it simple, and I guess I could too. It’s a challenge, and it’s fun to try new genetics to see how it works and if it improves the herd. It would get boring if I didn’t do the extra things.”

Welfare checks are constant during calving season. The health of the calves are important especially when the weather turns bad.

The "maternity ward" offers a warm place for cows to have their calves before returning to the grass pastures.

He has made a science out of the season. He’s quick to say that years of mistakes has made his operation run efficiently even through the poorest of weather conditions.

“You make mistakes, and you learn from them,“ he says. “I like to think I’ve figured out the easiest and best ways to do a lot of things. You can’t control the environment because you have to be in the environment. That’s where technology, genetics and experience comes in.”
Ohnemus returns to his tractor after securing a gate to his rolling pastures. The Ohnemus' have been farming in the Milo, IA area for close to 150 years.

Ohnemus doesn’t see his last calving season coming anytime soon, but he is already seeing his sons take an interest in becoming the fifth generation to work on their century farm. That gives him a great sense of pride in the farming foundation his ancestors started nearly 150 years ago, and he has continued.

“I look for one of them to come back but if the other two do we need to consider expanding,” Ohnemus says. “We would have to look into confined feeding or possibly aquaculture.”

He went on to say that expansion of the farm would generate more income so his sons could make a good living.

The day ends for Ohnemus much like it started. Feeding the cattle and doing health checks before going into the house for a hot meal and, of course, watching the TV.

Maggie rides with Ohnemus during morning chores. Ohnemus said that his dog never leaves his side as he works through the day.
Created By
Joseph L. Murphy
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Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association

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