by: Heather Smith Thomas
A growing number of stockmen are calving later in the year (April, May or June) rather than early, to be more in tune with nature. They have green grass at calving time and less need for harvested forage when the cow's nutritional needs are peaking during lactation. Along with later calving comes the necessity for later weaning. Some stockmen are choosing to winter the calves with the cows and wean at about 10 months of age (in late February or in March) rather than wean during early winter with all the stress of harsh weather.
Nick Faulkner (Ruso Ranch in North Dakota) has been wintering calves with their mothers for nine years. “We keep them on their mothers for about 10 months, pulling them off two months before the cows calve again. We calve in late April. This has worked very well for us. We don't have to give any vaccinations for scours or for other calf diseases,” he says. Being on mother's milk through winter, without the stress of weaning, seems to keep the calves healthy.
“In spring, when cows are calving during warm weather, we are not seeing any problems. There are a few cows that can't handle it as well (losing body condition nursing their calf through winter) but those are the ones we cull.” Those cows don't fit the program.
“We watch condition score throughout the winter and have a pretty good idea which cows will be all right and which ones won't. Our feeding program helps keep most of the cows in good shape. We use a lot of cover crops, hay them, and feed that to the cows through winter. They are getting top quality feed to help them keep their body condition,” says Faulkner. Even if some of them lose a little weight, most of those thinner cows bounce back before they calve.
“Some of the ones you'd think might not turn out so well can really recover nicely with high quality feed. Wintering the pairs together simplifies our winter feeding program. My father-in-law raised corn for silage (to feed during winter) for 30 years, and we dropped that completely. We are no longer raising corn. We do more haying, but the calves go through winter so much better on the cows than they do being weaned.”
The ranch has been gradually increasing cow numbers and is now calving about 250 cows. “We try to keep our own heifers rather than buy cattle. We have bought a few bred heifers but keep them separate from the main herd for awhile, for biosecurity. We keep our calves after weaning, running them as yearlings on grass and sell them in the fall.” The calves that are weaned in late February really bloom when they hit the grass.
“We like to run them on dry grass at first rather than the lush green grass. They can start eating the new shoots under the old grass and gradually get onto the fresh grass.
The calves are not stressed at all by weaning; about half of them are already weaned by their mothers by the time we wean the group,” he says. This is a natural age for them to be weaned, and the cows are already weaning them.
This makes it a lot easier on the cows and the calves than early weaning. “We do fenceline weaning so it's low stress. Usually within three days after we separate the pairs, there are only one or two bellowing at each other. When we wean them, the calves are so content that they don't care where they are,” says Faulkner. At that age they are no longer so dependent on their mothers.
“Calves learn a lot from their mothers, regarding eating habits, etc. The longer you can keep them with their mothers, the better the calves will do,” he says.
“We are working on cutting our feed costs in winter. We are still running our tractors but we're doing quite a bit of bale grazing with the cattle, trying to reduce our costs. It all ties together, with the later weaning of the calves. The calves are eating with the cows—whether bale grazing or pasture grazing—rather than waiting for the truck to bring the feed out to them.” They are more motivated to find their own feed and don't become so spoiled and lazy.
“We want our cattle to be working for us, rather than us working for them. The biggest thing I've noticed about the later weaning is how much easier it is for all of us. We are having fewer problems and less sickness. We are also trying to do more direct marketing on a natural program so we are keeping track of what goes into those animals, especially the ones we are finishing. Now we are doing the same thing with our direct market calves as we are doing for our commercial herd and we don't have to change anything or do anything special for the natural market. It all works together and makes the process easier for us,” he says.
“There is a lot of expense if you are feeding silage or grain through the winter. That was the biggest thing about using corn silage, because the corn was expensive to grow. We can use that same land to raise grass—maybe a higher quality grass—at less expense than the corn or grain,” he says.
Wintering the pairs together seems to be a new concept to many people, but has been done in other places for a long time, such as Australia and Africa. A person sometimes has to adapt new ideas to fit their own conditions. If a person gets locked into doing things a certain way just because that's the way they've always done it, there are some missed opportunities.