In the cow-calf business, high variability in inputs combined with differences in production goals and the availability of resources make it challenging for producers to determine management plans that will deliver the most profitability for their enterprise. Operating plans are often determined by the size of the cow herd, production goals and the amount of land and labor available. However, one common goal exists for profitability to remain part of the equation; a live calf is worth more than a sick or dead one.
Taking care of cows and their newborn offspring during calving is a must – no matter what the size and scope of your operation, if you are to remain profitable in the cattle business. There isn’t just one “right” way about it, but there is a right way for each producer based on his or her resources.
Simplicity Rules in Big Country
Imagine your calving “lots” ranging in size from 5,000 acres to 20,000 acres. For Poison Spider Cattle Company, this is the reality of where they calve their 1,500 cows. They focus on a 60-day calving window that starts about April 1 each year, and when calving in the “big country” processing newborns is left to mother nature and the new mother cows.
“When we’re calving, we saddle up and go ride through the cows and see if there is something that needs help. We try to help them as much as possible during that time period,” said Shaun Strickland, managing partner at Poison Spider Cattle Company at Casper, Wyo.
When the ranch was first established in Wyoming with an Angus-based herd in 2014, he said they spent quite a bit of time culling those cows that had calving challenges. Now, they might assist a total of three or four out of 1,500 head each spring. The 100 head of heifers they calve are closer to home in a feedlot setting, just in case they do need extra attention.
“If the ground is covered in snow, we typically feed 33-35 pounds of hay per cow, but during calving we increase that to about 38 pounds of hay per day, so the calves have a warm, dry place to lay,” Strickland said. “And we don’t typically have scours or health issues because we aren’t confined. The cows are spread out, not calving on feed waste.”
The first time the calves are touched, unless they do have to treat a rare sick calf, is when the ranch brands, early to mid-June. Then, all calves are branded – their only form of identification – and vaccinated. Strickland said it isn’t cost effective to tag a group of nearly 1,500 calves that will run on open range all summer long.
An Investment Worth Extra TLC
Producing high-quality registered Hereford show heifers is the production goal for DeLHawk Cattle Co., with locations in Earlville, Ill., and Janesville, Wis. Spreading the show heifers ages out, and having adequate numbers of cattle for three sales annually determines the breeding and calving schedule for the operation that relies on at least a 90-percent in vitro fertilization heifer calf crop. Early spring calves born from the first part of January through April are sold in an annual production sale, “Steak and Eggs” each September; the late spring heifer calves are sold online in late November/early December; and a set of select fall-born heifers are marketed online in the spring.
DeLHawk Manager Tom Hawk said that making sure the environment the 80-100 cows will calve in during the winter and spring is clean and set up is their first priority before calving starts. Because of the cold, damp, windy winters, they have a large enclosed arena that they will bed with straw to calve their cows in. They let the cows calve in the open arena, clean and nurse their calves before putting them in a 12×12 calving pen for the first 48 hours. And even then, they only pen the cows up with their newborns at night to make sure they take to the calf and to ensure the calf is getting adequate nutrition.
“We do what we call double suck, turn the cow out during the day away from her calf for 5-6 hours, that way they know at night to get back to their own calf,” Hawk said. “When they go out with their calf in their own environment, we believe they are finding their calves better as far as nurturing and nursing them. So really for the first 48 hours, she’s only with her baby at night. From 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. the cow is out eating hay and the calves are kept inside in pens. After 48 hours, the pair is turned out to its natural environment, but calves have access to “calf camp,” a creep-shed, dry area, where they don’t have to worry about naval health or overall health.”
Although the pair is monitored closely during the calf’s first 48-hours of life, Hawk said during the calf’s first four hours, it is processed and watched extremely closely to make sure it is dry, warm, getting its first colostrum, and given an extra boost with a multitude of vitamins and other vaccinations, as well as gets its navel dipped. The first thing that the DeLHawk calving crew does is make sure that the cow licks dry her new calf and gets colostrum in it. Once that is done, and depending on the temperature, the calf may or may not be placed in an electrical heating hut. The calves will typically spend 1-2 hours in the heated box if the temperatures are below 20 degrees.
“We are big believers in hut-type calf heaters. They are the best investment for calving in the winter,” Hawk said.
After they come out of the calf heater, before they are reintroduced to their mothers in the smaller calving pen, the calves are processed. They are administered Inforce, an intranasal spray; BO-SE, a selenium shot; a shot of Vitamins E & D; Calf-Guard oral vaccine and First Defense oral gel, both to prevent scours.
Once the mother cow has accepted the calf, the calf is warm and has adequately nursed, Hawk said they make sure to tag and weigh calves within the first 12 hours.
“With the amount of investment we have in IVF, the first 48 hours is humungous as far as getting colostrum from the mother, making sure the calves are up and show signs of vigor,” Hawk said.
From the Mountains to the Plains and from the comfort of enclosed arenas to bedded down pastures, calving management can and does vary, with no exact right way. However, both operations are always focused on keeping their cows in optimal reproductive health, and focus on calving and rebreeding year-round by providing a high-quality mineral program to keep their mother cows in their best shape and keep them reproductively sound.
“We feed the VitaFerm® 30-13% Protein Tub™ so the cows heal up and clean out properly. Rarely do we ever see a cow that doesn’t have a good clean up for the rebreed,” Strickland said.
“We are big believers in VitaFerm Concept•Aid®. This mineral keeps our cows in shape, and when it comes time to flush our donor cows, we have great results every time,” Hawk said.