As a teenager, I thought my Dad was the dumbest man on earth. My dad, rest his soul, is now a rocket scientist in my mind. Much of what he said and did is proving to be true. He was a true cowman. I just wish he’d lived long enough for me to tell him so.

Take for example the old wives’ tale that hay doesn’t start growing until the green heads (horseflies) show up. My dad swore by this, but as a young and dumb county agent, I dismissed ideas like this. “No way,” I thought. “Where is the science?”

We can credit the horsefly for many hayfield wrecks with horses over the years. However, I don’t think we should give credit to the horsefly for growing hay.

But that’s not what my dad meant. He was saying that the horsefly’s springtime appearance was an indicator of favorable growing conditions for hay. It’s the similarity of the conditions required for the horsefly larvae to hatch and the conditions required for native hay to grow. Those conditions are warm days and nights along with moist soil conditions over an extended period of time. That relationship was clear to my dad. I was “too smart” at the age of 18 to fall for something so ludicrous.

Early farmers didn’t know about degree-days, or have soil probes, weather stations and computers to tell them when to plant as we do today. They did notice and use coincidences. The Indians of North America, for example, learned that if they planted corn too early, the seed would rot in the cold, wet soil. If they delayed planting they would reap a late and smaller corp. They soon learned that the ideal corn planting time was when the oak trees had emerged from dormancy and the leaves had expanded to the size of a squirrel’s ear.

The term used to describe the use of such natural indicators is phenology. Phenology is an ancient craft that has in recent years turned into a science.

Many people use indicators to predict many things. For example, look at some recent work done by Cow/Tek, Inc. They took 400,000 young cow records from the breed associations of Angus, Charolais, Gelbvieh, Hereford, Limousin, Red Angus and Simmental and analyzed the effect sex of calf had on postpartum interval.

Interestingly enough, the large data set showed young cows raising bull calves took a day or two longer to rebreed compared to similar age cows nursing heifer calves. Also, females weaning steer calves exhibited significantly shorter calving intervals compared to those with bull calves at side. At first glance, you’d dismiss their work, but think about it for a minute and it all makes sense.

Research clearly shows that suckling has a dramatic effect on postpartum interval and onset of estrus, especially in young cows. Obviously, bull calves more aggressively nurse their mothers than steer calves and heifer calves. This very clearly explains the extended postpartum interval in those dams nursing bull calves.

How about the recent Colorado State University (CSU) research indicating that the location of hair whorls, the spiral of hair that forms on the forehead of cattle, is related to temperament? Cattle with a whorl above the eyes are more excitable than those that have a whorl below the eyes.

The CSU research also indicates that the configuration of the whorl, a spiral center opposed to a straight-line center, is indicative of a bull’s fertility. Bulls with a round epicenter had a significantly higher percentage of normal sperm than bulls with an elongated hair whorl pattern.

Is this research fact or fiction? In my opinion, it’s too early to tell. I’m personally glad we have land-grant universities such as CSU doing practical research. Let's give them time to prove or disprove the theories before we dismiss it.

The horsefly indicator could fail to raise hay in a drought year such as 2003. No water-no hay, regardless if the horsefly is present or not. We also could fail to see the good times promised by our cattle market indicators if politics, disease, a failed economy, war or Mother Nature turns on us. The best advice is to enjoy today while it lasts because there is nothing we can do about it anyway.

I will close with a short word of advice that my dad passed on to me relative to swatting horseflies and bullies at school. He always said: “Make the first hit count.” After all, if you miss, you only make the buggers mad.”

Do you know what the scary part is? I am becoming my dad. I catch myself driving down the road with my left turn signal on with no intention of turning left. I can’t remember names of old friends. My eyes, hearing and memory are all failing, but I have never been happier to be involved in the livestock industry.

I’ve been humbled. The older I get the smarter the older generation becomes. Too bad I didn’t realize this when I was 18 and knew it all! Keep an open mind when you hear or read about a new idea related to livestock production or marketing. Who knows; there might be something to it?
-- Ron Torell, Nevada Livestock Extension (torellr@unce.unr.edu)