Calving For Quality OF Life
There are many things in life that we are blissfully unaware of until they come knocking at your door. Sometimes we even get fair warning that they are coming and we still do nothing. We received a healthy dose of that this calving season.
The vast majority of cow/calf operations in the west calve in mid February. The reason for this are most operators want a larger/older calf to sell to the sale barn in September or October. The calves that sold to stock yards are known as feeder cattle on the commodity trading floor. Feed yards are willing to pay more for a larger calf because they don't need to fatten them up as much as a smaller calf and can spend less money on feed. Supplemental feed stuffs are the most significant expenses for many producers, including feed yards aka confined animal feeding operations. (CAFOs)
So, the logic goes bringing a larger calf in September/October gets you a larger calf check. Another reason is some cattlemen have BLM or National Forest permits they summer their cattle on, and they need a stronger, more mature calf to scale those harsh terrains come summertime.
Last year we bought our first cow/calf pairs knowing they would calve mid March, Which is somewhat late for our area. Most folks calve in February sometime... One thing to know about Kamas Valley is that below freezing temperatures and blizzards are common in both February and March and occasionally April. High altitude makes weather extremes far more likely than lower altitudes especially when you have the Uinta Mountains staring down at you.
That means a lot of extra care, time, and stress to make sure these new born calves make it through the most vulnerable time in their life. Many ranchers are up at all hours of the night taking care of calves that could be born onto ice and -10°F. Mortality rates can be high depending on different conditions. Calving season usually coincides with a drop in quality of life for the ranchers and their families. For us, We would check on our cows 3 times a day. Morning, noon, and night. We fed our animals between 4 and 5 PM because it helps our cows calve in the day time for some reason(it worked). Schedule flexibility goes out the window. A lot of things can go wrong. If its too warm and everything is thawing it can be muddy, if its too cold the a warm calf coming out of the womb will stick to the snow and ice.
We lost 1 calf out of 3 this year. We thought one of the cows didn't get bred, and we were wrong. She looked very skinny and ended up calving early and it snowed about a foot and we think it covered the calf and we didn't see it and it ended up dying. Its not a good feeling losing a newly born baby calf, and we think this could have been avoided
And don't forget pulling calves. One thing to know about the cattle industry is that todays standards want giant cattle that finish well on corn. We call these cattle framey. They've got big frames and are very difficult to get fat on grass and require more feed too maintain weight and body condition. They aren't efficient. Another issue you have is that these cattle breed larger calves, and first calf heifers(first time mother cow) need assistance in giving birth. That means pulling calves. Sometimes this isn't that big a deal, but, believe me, horror stories abound about pulling calves. So in an effort to have the heaviest weaned calf we cause a number of issues that soon become run of the mill in the industry.
We lost 1 calf out of 3 this year. We thought one of the cows didn't get bred, and we were wrong. She looked very skinny and ended up calving early and it snowed about a foot and we think it covered the calf and we didn't see it and it ended up dying. It's not a good feeling losing a newly born baby calf, and we think this could have been avoided. 1 out of 3 is a very high mortality rate.
Is there an alternative to a stressful, time-consuming calving season? We think so, and we are going to find out.
First thing would be to change up our genes on our cattle. We have no need for heavy, framey cattle. They don't get fat on pasture, they tend to have big calves and require more feed to maintain body condition. What we are looking for are stocky, incredibly round cattle which is indicative a highly capable digestive system and rumen. They will marble on forage alone. Its not how heavy your weaned calves are, its how many total pounds your ground sustainably produce each year. We can raise more cattle if they are more thrifty. But that doesn't get you bragging rights for having the heaviest weaned calves in the coffee shop.
The nest thing is adjusting our calving season. Since we strive to mimc nature we observe the birthing seasons of wildlife. Most deer and elk in our area calve in May and June. Why would it be that way? Birthing onto long green grass rather than mud can prevent a host of diseases for newly born animals. Plus, the plane of nutritionist very high for the mother which is nursing its baby. Most of the available forage around that time is very nutritious. Plus, that higher plane of nutrition will contribute to the animals being healthy and capable of being bred again come breeding season. Mother Nature has already done the R&D and developed a business strategy for us. No need to try and reinvent the wheel.
The reasons are endless to calve later, but if you are beholden to an inflexible industrial model, its difficult to want to try something different. Many ranchers don't want to try to keep their animals for 24-30 months to try to get them to finish grade. This is a complex problem, and easy answers aren't quick to come by.
For us; we are not going to calve again in late winter or early spring. And we don't have to. We don't work in the commodity market, We have no need for heavy weaning weights..This is all made possible by you. The folks who support us by buying directly from livestock producers and specialty crop producers allow us to be flexible and follow nature's cues.
You're local ranchers,
Mitch, James, and McKinley
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The Conversationalist: Fred Provenza. Fred Provenza is an Animal Behaviorist and discovered how animals behave for the benefit of the land when they are in a herd. He also authored an amazing book called, Nourishment.