Life a lot easier calving late springWritten by Christy Hemken
By Christy Hemken, WLR Assist. & Crop Editor
Loveland, Colo. – “The opportunity for us as ranchers to work out the challenges by ourselves and to fail or succeed is a blessing we should be grateful to have,” said Paul Redd of Redd Ranches in Paradox, Colo. while talking to the December 2007 Range Beef Cow Symposium in Loveland, Colo.
One of the challenges that Redd Ranches has faced and in which they’re succeeding is making the switch to June calving in their commercial cowherd.
“In some ways our switch to June calving was a matter of principle,” explained Redd. “We’d been preaching for 50 years that you ought to use yearling bulls, buy the best bulls you can find and take advantage of hybrid vigor and make Mother Nature your partner. We said you ought to build a cowherd adapted to work efficiently on your ranch and so on, but we weren’t living by that entirely.
“We were trying to make the cows adapted to the range by culling the cows that calved late, but we were ignoring the high cost of forcing an arbitrary calving date. We wanted March and April calves but we were fighting Mother Nature by calving when there was not enough feed on the range to support a cow with a new calf.
“We were out of sync with the country, and our answer was to use substitute feeding, although we called it supplemental feeding.”
Redd said it has always been a battle in their country to keep the supplement consistently in front of the cows because of terrain and winter weather. “We were inconsistent in delivering it and it cost a lot of money. We selected for early-bred cows with high weaning weights and we struggled for years to keep the cows calving on time and we’d cull cows that would calve in May and June.”
Then the ranch vet suggested Redd Ranches start calving in June. There had been an experimental herd in Idaho that began to calve in June and July. “He got along so well with the same cows bred to the same bull at a later time, which resulted in a 20 percent lighter birth weight calving in June and July,” said Redd. “He could still use a good bull and not have the calving difficulty. Those calves were weaned at 300 pounds the first of December and they gained three pounds a day and finished as Choice cattle.”
Still, Redd said the ranch had a hard time getting around the idea of late calving, because the late calvers had always been the ones with the little calves they didn’t want.
“But we did make the change, and we’re glad we did. We expected it to lower costs, and it has,” notes Redd. “The other guys who had already been doing this talked about less stress on the cattle, and it’s just a lot easier life in the spring.”
Feed costs have been lowered because the cattle are supplemented less and the pressure is taken off the cow to reproduce at the wrong time of the year. “And the supplement is now supplied by the range rather than Purina,” said Redd.
“June calving cows don’t need much feed. If they lose some weight in the winter it’s not serious because they have a chance to regain some of that weight and calve in warm weather on green feed,” he continued.
The ranch feeds a mineral mix December through May at a cost of $10 per cow, a savings of $50 to $100 per cow, depending on which former management method the present cost is compared with. The mineral mix is determined by clippings of feed in the pasture the cows are about to go into. A mix is designed that complements that feed.
“We’ve lowered cost by using less labor – fewer man days and fewer horse miles and truck and trailer miles. Also, the ranch expected to have more marketing options, which have worked out,” said Redd.
“The other things we didn’t think about when we made the change was the stress saved on cowboys and cows, but it has made a big difference,” said Redd. “There’s just a better balance. In the spring there are too many things to do and if you’ve got your cattle in closer you’ve got to feed them and thaw out frozen calves and fight off scours and then you have to irrigate and haul water in the desert and fix the fence on the Forest Service before June 1. There are just too many things to do in the spring.”
The ranch now gathers the late-calving commercial cows from a very big range and there are a lot of miles to cover but Redd said it’s a lot easier because they’re not trying to move a baby calf over many miles. “It’s simple if you just get the cow onto the forest before calving. Life is simpler. The cows move from winter to summer range without a calf at their side and they do it easier and better.”
In marketing, Redd said there are now more options for their calves. “We can sell light calves directly off the cows or go to a finish lot and have them go out in June at 1,000 pounds. We can also go to pasture in Kansas or California and at the end of the spring have the option to sell them or pasture them again and sell them in September or feed them to Choice and sell them in December.”
“You do have more marketing options and there’s more flexibility with younger, lighter cattle,” he added.
Redd said the ranch can also leave the calves on the cows through the winter. “The cows aren’t giving much milk at that time, but they’re giving a lot of education to those calves and we like our replacement heifers having that opportunity.
“It’s a great way to develop replacement heifers. They learn the range from their mom and learn what to eat and what is poison and how to find water and how to survive bad weather. They spend a second winter as yearlings on the range and calve at 23 months on the range unassisted in mid-May.”
Redd said the real benefits are lower operating costs, cows in better condition at calving and better-milking cows. “We never used to have any trouble with too much milk but we started to when we switched to June calving and the cows milked much better than predicted. Our calf survival rate is also better, with three percent more calves weaned per cow bred.”
Also, he said branding is more fun. “It’s lot more fun to brand with the grandkids in August and it’s more of a party than drudgery, and it’s not at a time pushed by so many other things. Life is better and less stressful and gathering off winter range is easier without having to stop at the corrals for branding.”
Despite the benefits they’ve seen, Redd admits the ranch can’t brag much about weaning weights. “And also our cowboys and horses tend to get fat,” he joked.
On a serious note, he said a shortcoming and something they’re concerned about and working on is pregnancy rates. “Our rates are two to four percent lower than where they used to be, though our calf survival is higher so our net weaned-calves-per-cow is about the same.”
He said he thinks the challenge is to get the cows bred at a time when feed supplies are declining. “We put the bulls in August 20, and we’re assuming the lower rates are due to the feed so we’re going to try to change that so that we’re grazing regrowth during that period and I think that’ll change that pattern. Any way it works, we want to try to avoid involving the feed dealer.”
“Are we glad we made the change? Yes, because of the lower expenses, lower worries and the cows are in good shape,” concluded Redd. “Mother Nature is our feed dealer and we have a better balance of jobs and manpower, and spring is fun. It’s great.”