Cattleman Ronnie Heaton tries to do things right on his farm outside of Vandalia, Mo. His pastures are well managed, and his cows are rotated on schedule. His facilities are set up and maintained to ensure safety when handling the cattle. And he takes a proactive approach to cow health and nutrition.
That approach includes giving MFA Shield Plus to newborn calves within their first hours of life. It’s been standard practice on the Heaton farm ever since MFA Livestock Key Account Manager Wendy Flatt Beard gave the cattleman a few samples of the proprietary product to try last year.
“We always work the calves the day they’re born,” Heaton said. “Since we already have the calf down to ear tag it, I just carry the bottle of Shield Plus in my pocket and give them a squirt of it before I let them up. We’ve had nothing but good experiences with it.”
Developed to be administered to newborn or stressed animals, Shield Plus comes in liquid or paste forms. It’s one of the most popular products in MFA’s Shield Technology lineup, which is formulated for multiple species. The concentrated colostrum extract, synbiotics, botanical extracts, fatty acids and vitamins in Shield Plus help promote animal health and immunity from the get-go. In addition, freeze-dried egg antibodies help combat scours, one of the most serious problems that plague newborn calves.
Heaton raises 80 Hereford-Angus cow/calf pairs. Though most of the spring calving on his farm happens in mid-March, later than on many cattle operations, Beard still refers to the time of year as “sprinter”—a combination of spring and winter. She generally helps Heaton work his cattle during this in-between season.
“It’s just hard on calves,” Beard said. “Last year, it was still cold and wet, and that’s pretty much the norm now. You can tell those baby calves just need a little extra something.”
It’s a difference you can see, Heaton acknowledged, noting specifically the calves’ temperament and energy levels after administering Shield Plus.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” he said. “But within the first day or few hours— basically as soon as we can get our hands on it—that calf is going to get a dose of Shield.”
Heaton and his wife, Joyce, reside and raise cattle on land that was once her father’s farm. Much of their pasture ground lies adjacent to their home or is rented from neighbors nearby. An old two-story farmhouse that sits within eyesight just down the road marks Heaton’s own roots.
“My great-granddad built that house in 1894,” Heaton said. “I was raised about three miles from here. Our family has been around this area for about 150 years.”
In 1871, Heaton’s great-grandfather moved to this area from Marion County, Ill.
“If memory serves me right, he bought the farm for $10 an acre,” Heaton said. “People have asked me why he didn’t buy up on the prairie between Vandalia and Farber. Well, that area was mostly swamp back then—buffalo grass and rattlesnakes and not much timber to actually use to build a house.”
Heaton started farming himself at age 24 after returning from the Vietnam War in 1973. Rows of corn and soybeans once stood where his cattle now graze.
“When I got out of the service, I went to work at the brick plant in Vandalia and rented this place from my father-in-law to row-crop,” Heaton said. “I was young and eager and had a plan.”
In addition to row-cropping, he invested in hogs. In 1978, Heaton said he made more money than he’d ever dreamed he would make in one year, but in 1979, the bottom fell out when a localized drought hit the area.
“That was kind of the beginning of the end for my farming,” Heaton said. “There were three droughts in five years, and when interest rates went to 18%, there was no way.”
Like many others, Heaton went to work off the farm in 1983.
“I was fortunate enough to get hired on to the second shift at General Motors in Wentzville,” Heaton said. “I worked there and farmed part time. My wife ran a small insurance agency, and we slowly built our way back up.”
His goal was always to return to cattle production, which Heaton describes as his “first love.”
“My dad always farmed,” he said. “When I was 9 years old, our milk cow had a calf—it was a little half-Jersey, half-Angus calf. When it was small, it had something wrong with it, and my dad told me if I could save that calf, I could have it. What I remember most is that every night before I went to bed, my mom or dad would mix up a bottle of milk with some Terramycin in it, and I would go to the barn to give the calf a bottle.”
The calf lived, and Heaton kept it.
As a high school freshman, he raised a show calf. When he sold it, however, others convinced him pigs would be more profitable. Still, like most teenagers, Heaton would doodle on the edges of his notebooks in class. His doodles, though, were diagrams of feedlots and cattle pastures.
When Heaton retired from General Motors, he took the few cattle he already had and decided to grow the herd. He built fences and converted crop fields into pastures. The Heatons’ son, Jamie, an elevator supervisor at MFA Agri Services in Vandalia, also bought into the operation.
“My son and I continually talk about how we can tweak our program a little more,” Heaton said. “We try to buy the right genetics and save back our own heifers. All of our cattle are vaccinated and documented through the Health Track program. We’re always learning, and there’s always room for improvement, but we’ve been farming for enough years now that we’re probably doing more culling than anything—taking off the bottom end rather than adding to the top.”
That isn’t to say they don’t have challenges, Heaton said. Like most farmers, weather and prices are regular frustrations. One of their goals is to transition the operation completely to a fall-calving cycle to avoid those “sprinter” months, as Beard described it. Currently, the herd’s calving seasons are split roughly 50/50 between spring and fall, and Heaton estimates the changeover will take two years.
Even when that happens, Heaton insisted, the use of Shield Plus will continue to be a proactive protocol for all the farm’s calves.
“Out of 74 calves this year, we haven’t had any respiratory or intestinal issues,” Heaton said. “I told Wendy the other day, I don’t know what’s in it. All I know is it works, and I’m going to use it.”
For more information on Shield Plus or other Shield Technology products, contact your local MFA Agri Services or visit online at mfa-inc.com/Products/Feed/Shield.
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