February 10, 2017
By Ashley Garrelts
It is winter in much of the West. The snow is blowing. The temperature registers in the low teens without the windchill. As my granddad would say, “It’s colder than a brass toilet seat on the shady side of a snowdrift.”
What are your plans for the day? If the snow is deep and/or the windchill low, you will feed the cows. You will check the water, maybe chop some ice, and drive or walk through the cows just to see that all is well. What about calving? Are you going to have to go outside, donning your winter clothing time and time again to check your calving cows? Wouldn’t it be nice to sit inside by the warm fire drinking coffee, catching up on those beef and ranching magazines you have been wanting to read? Maybe it would be a good idea to putter around the heated shop doing some routine vehicle maintenance.
Or are you outside, working in the snow and wind, with a high-maintenance cow herd? Which scenario sounds familiar to you? Do you have a high-maintenance herd, full of drama queen cattle? Or do you have a low-maintenance cow herd, full of laid-back, unpretentious cattle?
If you have the former, you may be thinking that it is time to make a change. You are not getting any younger. Your priorities are changing. Are you asking yourself, “Why am I killing myself for these cattle? I bet I could continue to make a profit and have an easier time of it, if I just made a few changes.” Change is hard. I recognize that. However, with a few easy steps, a low-maintenance cow herd could be in your future! Let us look as some of the qualities that make up such a herd.
Cows are matched to the environment. Animals that live in harsh environments should be able to withstand those environments. In Wyoming, cattle need to have good foraging behavior; they should be easy gainers, and hardy. Feed costs make up nearly 70% of maintaining a cow in good condition. Wouldn’t it be nice if cattle could harvest their own feed instead of us doing it for them? By changing the reproductive cycle of a cow and her calving date, you can more closely match her feed requirements to when growing feed is most abundant and most nutritious. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t feed your cow harvested feeds if her condition, the weather, or some other circumstance warrants it. Be smart about it, and try your best to use what nature gives you.
Cows calve on their own. Less than 5% of cows and 15% of heifers should need assistance with birthing their young. Choose bulls with easy-calving/low-birth-weight expected progeny differences (EPDs), and cull cattle that give you problems during the calving season.
Calves should be quick to rise and quick to suckle. In most cases, calves should be up and suckling within one hour after birth. Calves need to receive the colostrum, or first milk, from their mothers fairly quickly. This results in increased herd health. Visit with your veterinarian and get the cows on a good health program, so calves will receive all their nutrition and immunity from their mother. This cuts down on time spent doctoring calves. Strong calves who suckle quickly after birth reduce the amount of time you need to spend giving extra care and milk to those calves. Cull poor mothers accordingly.
Calve outside. Providing some type of shelter for calving cows is always a good idea in Wyoming; however, it does not have to be a full calving barn. A simple wind break will suffice. Change your calving date so weather is less of an issue for newborns and their mothers. Mud, snow, and extremely wet and cold weather are hard on calves and their mothers. Maybe late-spring, summer, or even early-fall calving would suit your herd better.
Shorten the breeding season. When you shorten the breeding season, you shorten the calving season. Cull cows that calve late — one that calves late, always calves late.
Creating a low-maintenance cow herd is fairly easy to do. Most of it hinges on calving date and raising healthy cattle in good condition. Are you tired of dealing with the drama queens and divas in your cow herd? It might be time to think about a change. It can be difficult, but may be well worth the effort.
Garrelts is the University of Wyoming Extension Converse County educator on sustainable management of rangeland resources. She writes a regular blog on range management topics.
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