Todd Churchill doesn't like being Bud Williams to newly arrived stocker cattle.
Bud Williams taught thousands of people - either directly or indirectly through his family and disciples - to get newly arrived calves up and walk them around and teach them to trust their human caretaker and teach them where the feed and water are.
Churchill, who is president and co-owner of Thousand Hills Cattle Company, says Williams was a great mentor and actually gave him this idea for settling stocker calves.
"I am just pushing the envelope even further than Bud did," Churchill says. "Walking the stress off calves absolutely works and it is exactly the right thing to do when receiving calves. However, I watched the way cows provide 'babysitters' for the calves while they go off and graze, and how calm and relaxed those calves are all day without mom, as long as the babysitter cow is close by. That gave me the idea that maybe I could make Bud's method even simpler by using a nurse cow instead of myself to walk them around."
Churchill explains how he prefers to have a nurse cow show his calves around the lot when they arrive. In fact, he says the nurse cow or an older and very calm steer is the centerpiece of his receiving success.
"With Bud Williams' method they have to learn to trust you. But a nurse cow is somebody they already know how to trust," Churchill says.
"And think about it," he continues. "The cows the herd chooses to be nurse cows and look after the calves are always calm and never high-headed and flighty. That's the kind of cow I want to receive my calves.
"I am not looking for a nursemaid job. This is what I use the babysitter cows or older steers to do."
"Natural" receiving protocol
For grass-fed beef animals Churchill has developed a sort of "natural" protocol which might be useful to other stocker operators and finishers.
He has been buying and raising calves for the grass-finished beef market quite a few years now and still operates his farm and Thousand Hills Cattle Company out of Cannon Falls, Minnesota.
"In the past five years I have received in over 500 calves and yearlings and have never had a single animal sick," Churchill says.
"I want calves that are healthy, more important than performance," Churchill says. "I want them on the cow as long as possible. There is no minimum but I seldom buy calves not on milk for at least 7 months, and greatly prefer calves on 9-10 months."
"Buy right off the farm, although I have never had a sick calf from a sale barn either - which leads me to believe that calf sickness is mostly management induced, not sale-barn-environment produced.
"Absolutely do not take them off feed or milk until they walk on the truck. I want them as full of feed/milk/water as I can get them. The best way to have healthy calves after a move is never let them get hungry.
"I have had better experience with calves weaned onto the truck than with pre-conditioned calves, I think because they had more milk.
"Older is better but not necessarily heavier. The most challenging time in a 100% grass-fed program is prior to 11 months of age. By 11 months, regardless of weight, the calves are ruminating well enough to do well on forage only. I am very particular about getting them from weaning to 11 months," Churchill adds.
"Maybe I'm just lucky but I don't do any of the recommended things for bringing in calves, he says.
Churchill doesn't vaccinate them when they arrive. He doesn't keep each group separate. He doesn't run them through a chute.
"I do manage their social and environment and diet stress. I make absolutely sure they are drinking and eating, and feel safe and secure," he says.
Out to pasture
"After the first 12 hours or so the group, including the babysitters, goes out to dormant pasture so they are on grass and not in a dirt lot. I just need to make sure they are calm enough to stay close to the babysitters and they always do."
"I don't ever feed in hay rings or out of a wagon. I unroll hay on the ground (when I don't have grass)," he continues.
"In short, I believe in the strength and power of the bovine immune system. My job is to eliminate anything that would compromise that immune system and leave them alone to eat and grow."