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Animal Health Notebook

Thoughts and mechanics of aging, Part I

Alan Newport Corriente cow
Author says cow longevity is a worthwhile trait, regardless of your system.
Author says cow longevity matters, regardless of how your run your operation.

Oklahoma rancher Wally Olson preaches that female bovines may be well marketed before they begin to make major price depreciation at age 5 or 6. Since the average beef cow in America only averages three weaned calves, I would agree with his teaching if this is your model.

Olson considers cattle to be capital and a “tradeable” commodity. Olson’s model cow often begins as a stocker heifer. She is low-input and 200-300 pounds lighter than the industrial norm. The goal is to “upgrade” her and capture some of the real appreciation normally in the cow market. With these lightweight heifers, he sells those that don’t get bred as feeder cattle.

He operates a low-input system to keep his costs low and help improve profitability, then likes to sell cows in their prime when they have their highest value. His model, if you can call it that, is to make the most profit he can, always looking to sell what’s “over-valued” and buy what’s “undervalued.” Heifers can be raised or bought. His bulls need to be smaller framed and easy-fleshing, too, since he commonly keeps the cows for a time.

I don’t challenge his thinking, but that’s not exactly my model. My model is most similar to what retired Colorado rancher Chip Hines refers to as a “natural cow.” Simply put, this is a ruminant girl that fits the environment where she resides. To fit she needs to be capable of keeping and reproducing on what grows at our place (or at your place). She needs to be able to grow and calve on mostly what she can self-harvest. At our place we are willing to give her two to two and a half acres of forage and $70 of supplement annually. This acreage and supplement include the calf that is running with her for nine to 10 months before it is weaned (normally by her). The calf then remains in the herd for a hundred plus days. We seldom run more than one herd.

We’d like for her to stay around for 18 years and wean 16 calves. If everything is timed correctly and we have the right cow she is dry for 30-45 days per year. This helps save the udder. Yes it also keeps her metabolism up more days per year. Remember the principle “there ain’t no free lunches.” But we help stop her udder from breaking down and likely take one hundred or more pounds off her mature weight and remove one to three frame scores by making her work.

Needless to say, we require easy keeping cows. We take them to yearlings in the same pastures with mamma. The cow needs to self-harvest what grows, breed, calve, nurse, wean the calf, and keep herself in good shape. We need her to do it annually. If she can’t perform then we will remove her teats and let her fatten and then eat her or feed her to someone else.

Therefore, longevity is worth studying. I’ll try to review a bunch of what we think we presently know in this and three more blogs. Every valid piece of work that I’m aware of shows that a cow’s most important maternal trait is reproduction. Back in the 1980s, research at Oklahoma State and Colorado State universities showed that reproductive function begins falling downward at a mature weight of 1,000 pounds. This 1,000-pound body weight was recorded the week before calving. After calving and 2-3 weeks into lactation the cow weighed around 900 pounds. We’re talking about 5- to 7-year-old cows, not first- and second-calf heifers.

This indicates that cows 950 to 1,000 pounds are what we need. Also, they need to produce 1 ½ gallons of high-fat milk when they peak in lactation at about 45 days post calving.

Concerning heifers, we would like for them to calve at 65-70% of their mature weight. My calculator says this is 665 pounds, and we have calved several heifers that weighed a bunch less. Most of them (95%) calve unassisted for several reasons:

  • The heifers and their mothers self-harvest 12 months annually and have done so their entire lives, which demands plant diversity and daily exercise.
  • No new bulls are introduced from outside sires. A neighborhood bull will occasionally be the exception.
  • The heifers have never been yarded.
  • The heifers have never been fat.
  • The heifers have never received more than 15% dry matter in seeds or grain.

I’ll be following up on the mechanisms of aging and my thoughts. Needless to say they are a mishmash of mine and many others. Stay tuned and we’ll be back.

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