Calming the chaos
Snowfall covers Hess Farms in Maryville, Mo., in early February, just prior to calving season. The Hesses are hoping for better conditions this spring than last year, which was bitterly cold, muddy and snowy when their first claves arrived in early March.
Belinda Hess said she's known as "Trail Boss" on the farm, where she and her husband, Matt, raise 80 head of cattle and grow 3,000 acres of row crops. Belinda has background in show cattle, which even helped her pay for college at Northwest Missouri State University.
The Hesses live on the farm established by Matt's grandfather, Homer Hess. Starting out, Matt farmed with his grandfather and uncle, J.E. Hess. Belinda joined her husband full time nine years ago.
There were 84 calves born on Hess Farms last year, and nearly all of them were given MFA's Shield Plus, and oral drench that helps give the newborns a boost of energy to get up and nurse their mothers. The Hesses call Shield Plus their "security blanket" to help them get through the stressful spring calving season.
Belinda and her youngest son, Triston, 9, bottle feed one of the farm's calves. He and his older brother, Grayson, 12, and sister, Jerrica, 14, are actively involved on the farm, which their parents say helps teach responsibility and introduces them to the realities of life - good and bad.
As the 2020 calving season approaches on their northwest Missouri farm, Matt and Belinda Hess feel a mixture of anticipation and apprehension.
After all, last year was rough. Bitter cold, heavy snow and persistent mud in late winter and early spring created a stressful time for their newborns to arrive. When the first calf hit the frozen ground on the Hesses’ Maryville farm March 3, 2019, the high temperature was only 12 degrees and dipped below zero that night.
“We both love calving season because there’s nothing better than seeing that new baby born and then bucking and kicking around,” Belinda said. “But we sure are hoping this year is easier. There was about a 10-day window last March that was really, really cold, and if you didn’t catch the calves when they were born, they weren’t going to survive—it didn’t matter if it was 10 at night or 4 in the morning. Neither of us wants to deal with that again.”
The Hesses aren’t alone. Many beef producers across the Midwest struggled during the spring 2019 calving season. The difficult weather began to affect cattle the previous fall, which was unusually wet, and many cows entered winter with less-than-ideal body condition. By the time their calves were born, colostrum quality was compromised. Poor nutrition coupled with the harsh environment meant the newborns had an uphill battle from the start.
“We consider ourselves extremely lucky,” Belinda said. “We had a neighbor up the road here who calves out about 350-400 head every year. He lost over 70 calves last year because of the weather.”
On Hess Farms, the 80-head herd typically calves in a two-month window in March and April. During the worst of the weather last year, however, 33 babies were born in about 11 days—stretching Belinda and Matt to their limits.
“It wasn’t easy,” she said. “Our cows are about 13 miles up the road, and we were checking them every three or four hours. We were bringing every calf into the barns, trying to warm them up and work with them to keep them alive. It was unreal, the circumstances we were dealing with.”
As the Hesses shared their frustrations with others in the close-knit ag community, a friend and fellow cattle producer, Mace Coston, encouraged them to try MFA’s Shield Plus. This proprietary product, administered as an oral drench, contains concentrated colostrum extract to help ensure newborn calves get optimum levels of essential nutrients. It also provides probiotics to improve gut health, Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids as a quick source of energy and therapeutic levels of vitamins A, D and E to help prevent oxidative stress.
“He said, ‘You guys need to go get this stuff from MFA. I’ve never seen anything like it,’” Belinda said. “So, we called up to our local MFA here in Maryville and asked them to get us some. Even though we aren’t afraid to try new technologies and advancements, I admit we were a little skeptical. But we were also ready to try anything at that point.”
Shield Plus proved its value right off the bat. Soon after they’d gotten a bottle, Matt discovered a newborn bull calf, face down in the mud, nearly lifeless. The Hesses had little hope it would survive.
“This thing looked like it had about 10% chance of making it,” Matt said. “You could tell it was breathing, but it was covered in mud and eyes completely rolled back. We got it in to the pickup with the heater on, and I gave it a couple of squirts of Shield in the mouth. Instantly, this lifeless calf kicked. Just unbelievable. Both of us were amazed.”
“It was to the point to where we had to decide: do we fight for this one or just put it out of its misery?” Belinda added. “That’s the hardest decision any farmer has to make. For us that day, we had the Shield, so we wanted to try to save that calf. Neither one of us likes to give up. But I said it would take a miracle to make this calf live. Actually, it just took some Shield. From that point on, I was a believer.”
That calf not only survived but thrived—and so did 83 other calves born on Hess Farms last spring. They only lost two calves; one was premature, and the other was a twin. Most of them received a dose of Shield Plus in that critical first 12 to 24 hours to make sure they had enough energy to nurse their mothers.
“They need that colostrum, but a lot of times you can’t get the calf going, especially when they get cold and chilled,” Belinda said. “We tried to catch every calf and give it a shot of Shield. It gave them enough gumption to get up, eat well and jump around like little calves will do. You could take a calf that didn’t want to even move, give it Shield, and the next thing you knew, you couldn’t hold onto it. It’s like liquid gold.”
The all-natural blend of ingredients in Shield Plus stimulates the immune system and increases appetite, said Mike Spidle, MFA Incorporated strategic feed specialist. Prebiotic fiber feeds beneficial microbes in newborn digestive tracts, while probiotics supply “good” bacteria and yeasts. Botanical extracts also provide antimicrobial activity against invading bad bacteria, and high-quality immunoglobulins reduce fever and inflammation.
“You can’t be sure that a cow’s colostrum is giving a calf what it needs, and you can’t know the gut environment of every animal in your herd,” Spidle said, “but you can make sure every baby gets the same start to life.”
Shield Plus also has spray-dried egg antibodies that help combat scours, a benefit the Hesses can confirm.
“A lot of people had scour problems last year, and we didn’t have any,” Matt said. “I firmly believe it’s because Shield kept their digestive system healthier. I wouldn’t want to go through another calving season without it.”
Ultimately, he said, Shield Plus helped calm their chaotic calving season, which immediately precedes the spring planting rush on Hess Farms. Row crops make up the majority of the operation, with Matt and Belinda working full time on the farm together with help from their children, Jerrica, 14, Grayson, 12, and Triston, 9. The family raises some 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans in addition to their 80 head of cattle.
“It would be hard to be a farmer today without loving the challenge, because everything is a challenge,” Matt said. “And that’s why Shield worked so great for us. As intensified as we are in row crop, Shield is what helps us take care of the cows. With the problems we ran into last year, it got the calves going and alleviated a lot of our worry.”
Belinda, who is active in her community and on social media, continually shares the challenges and successes of her family’s agricultural endeavors with fellow farmers and the non-farming public alike. She considers Shield Plus one of the success stories, and she’s been spreading the word to other cattle producers in hopes of helping them experience its benefits.
“Farmers, we have to rely on each other,” she said. “We need to talk about what’s working and what isn’t. Sometimes, that’s the only way people find out about things like Shield. Just in the last month, I’ve had three guys reach out and ask what the product was that we liked so much last year. I tell them ‘Shield,’ and send them straight to MFA. It’s definitely something every cattle producer should have on hand.”
For more information on MFA Shield Technology, talk with the livestock specialists at your local MFA or AGChoice or visit online at mfa-inc.com/products/feed/shield.
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