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Calving fits with year-round grazing at Chinook Ranch

Longview, Alta. ranch in operation since 1950

Stephen Hughes raises beef cattle near Longview, in southwestern Alberta. “Our family has been here since the late 1940s. My grandfather came from England in 1928 and had this ranch put together by 1950. My dad, Jim, is still involved in the day-to-day management of the ranch. I am third generation, and when I got out of university the order of the day was to use a certain segment of a ranch for farming or hay production — to feed cattle through the winter,” he says.

Stephen Hughes

Stephen Hughes
photo: Supplied

“About 20 years ago I selected a different path, to have the pregnant cattle all graze through winter, with less reliance on hay. We use various forms of protein supplementation and learned how to do that along the way. We have it down to a pretty good science now. Depending on the age of the cattle, we use different forms of protein. For 20 years we haven’t fed substitute hay to pregnant cattle,” he says.

“The calves we keep are feed hay and pellets, but we feed them outside rather than shutting them in pens. They are healthier, and keep getting a certain component of their diet from grazing,” says Hughes.

“In the winter we group rising twos and threes together and feed them second cut alfalfa in their third trimester. We also feed mineral with dried urea in it as a nitrogen source (for protein). There is a bit of science to that; you have to do it right. Our young cows have been exposed to that, and for cows four years old and up that’s all they are getting as a supplement while grazing.” This complements the dry forage through winter.

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“The whole goal, which I think is often misunderstood in the cow management segment of our industry, is protein supplementation,” says Hughes. Cattle on dry forages need more protein, to utilize that forage and ferment it in the rumen, and process it into useable nutrients.

“The protein is feeding the microbes in the rumen, rather than the cow. Those ‘gut bugs’ must have protein (in order to break down roughage and convert it into energy, etc.) and it must be a compatible protein for the ‘bugs’ that are needed, to digest the so-called low-quality roughage. Cattle do well on this forage, because the energy is there, if they are given the proper protein to feed the ‘bugs’ that break it down and convert it to energy.

“Buffalo survived here very nicely during winter, without any inputs, so we’ve tried to go in that direction with our cattle. This is a natural advantage we have here on the eastern slopes in southwestern Alberta because we often get chinooks that melt the snow, and we have hills the snow blows off. It’s a more temperate climate than some other regions where it’s harder to graze cows through winter. Yet the same principles can apply, if people want to feed straw as a roughage source and just add the necessary protein,” he explains.

“This idea has shaped our management, which has changed from what it was when I was 25. Today, range management and grass is our main focus in summer since we are not doing any farming or haying. This has improved our grass management and increased the cattle numbers we carry in summer. We have higher-quality grass now, going into the winter.”

Using cattle to graze the grass has also changed cattle management, in how and when the cows are bred and calved. “When we were putting up lots of feed, we were calving earlier, with major focus on weaning weight. The cows were calving in March and the heifers late February. Now we turn out bulls July 15, which puts us into late-April calving. This may still be a bit early,” says Hughes.

“I am calving as early as I can, without feeding my cows. The big expense in a cow-calf operation is not the calving; it’s in rebreeding (feeding them adequately enough so they will rebreed on schedule), and we are just using grass to do that now instead of hay. We might still be calving a bit early, for that. May 1 is probably the ideal time to start calving, for our climate and area. The ideal calving time varies with where you live. The older I get, I can see myself calving as much as a week to 10 days later, as we fine-tune it,” he says.

The style of cattle he raises has also changed. “We like the big-ribbed, deep-bodied cows because they survive nicely in this program. They are Angus-based, with Herefords crossed in. This makes a good cow, and I don’t care what color she is. Ours are black and red baldies, and make a great range cow. These breeds are very complementary; what one breed lacks, the other makes up for it. We use Hereford bulls on Angus cows,” he says. The cross makes a hardy animal, with hybrid vigour.

“The kind we raise have the capacity to eat lots of forage and do well. When it snows, they don’t look for hay anymore. Their needs are different and they are out there happily grazing. I have seen them eat through pretty deep snow, and usually the snow doesn’t stay long, in this part of the world. We get some snow in May, but we don’t get severely cold temperatures at that time of year. If the calving cows have cover, they do fine,” says Hughes.

Calving management

The focus on grass management and grazing through winter influences timing of calving. “Why should we quit grazing just because we are calving? We now don’t pair out the newly calved cows and move them out to new pasture; we just keep moving the entire herd to new pasture. It’s not only a health benefit (a clean area for young calves) but it’s also how the herd gets fed. We probably had 10 moves last year before we were done calving, on that dormant grass.” The calves don’t get sick if the herd is continually going to new areas.

“We vaccinate the cow herd just before calving, giving viral vaccines like BVD. Ideally, I would do it later, at branding time, but one of our branding traps doesn’t have any setup to work the cows. So we do them right before calving, and also give them 8-way. We don’t need to use a scour vaccine in our operation. I think the 8-way covers any issues we might have, and going to new, clean ground during calving takes care of any other scour problems. That’s pretty much a non-issue,” says Hughes.

“The biggest challenge is moving to new ground all the time when we are calving, and that’s the worst time to be out on this native grass, when it’s starting to grow in the spring. It does help, however, to rotate that impact around. This means that sometimes we start to calve far from home, but this matters less and less, as long as the cattle have some cover. I’d rather calve where there’s lots of natural shelter than have the cows where it’s easy to get to them.” The cows know how to utilize the cover.

“A cow is self-sustaining, if you let her. She doesn’t need your intervention all along the way. If you let her be herself, she can manage. Cattle are amazing creatures,” says Hughes.

“We used to feed them all the time, where we could watch them. Now they are range calving, out in the brush and they calve very nicely without assistance. If you let a cow calve naturally, and don’t make her do it in tough conditions, and she has shelter, she can be very smart — if you let her. We check them during calving, but they are on their own a lot. Our incidences of intervention are very low. It’s generally just a bit of help if there’s a backward calf or something unusual. Part of this is just bull management, for easy calving.”

The heifers are kept home and watched more closely. “They are not a big problem, however, and after calving they get managed as a group by themselves, with more protein. We do shut them in and feed them hay until they calve, and then they are out on grass,” he says. Bulls are selected for calving ease as well as other traits.

“With our heifer bulls we focus on making sure they calve easy, and we don’t aim for big calves. The cow herd is the same; we watch birth weights, EPDs and the bull’s structure, but with the two breeds we are using I am not very concerned about calving. Also, a cow that has spent the winter walking and grazing is a lot easier calving than one that’s been confined for winter. Exercise makes them fitter for calving and I think this actually cuts down on the number of backward calves and other calving problems. The calves tend to position themselves properly,” says Hughes.

Just being in the right body condition, with exercise, helps with calving ease. A fat heifer, with poor muscle tone and very little endurance, will wear out quicker during hard labour, and might need assistance, compared to a heifer in proper condition. “I like the fact that our cows are athletic. They are by no means fat, but they are definitely not thin,” he says. And when they are moved from pasture to pasture it’s low stress and very orderly.

“They practically manage themselves, but they will tell you when it is time to move. It’s very easy to move them when they know they are going to new pasture. We just open the gate and let them come through, and do a health check on the way by to make sure they are all happy and doing well. Our calving is very simple,” he says.

“All three of our daughters are good help. Kayla is 19 and in university now, so she wasn’t around for calving this year. Josie is 16, and Erin is 13. They enjoy helping, and rode through the cows most nights after school last year. We are glad to be able to raise our family on a ranch,” says Hughes.

Having the heifers more closely monitored than the cows is partly just because this is a traditional mindset. “I think half the battle with letting the cattle calve more naturally is telling yourself it can be done. If you’ve always done it a certain way, you feel you still have to be there, to help a heifer calve if she needs it. Past practices can be a hindrance to future progress! For some reason we think we still need to watch the heifers. We don’t live with them, but they are close to home and easier to watch. If there is a real problem, we’ll find it, because the heifers are right between our two houses.”

Last spring Hughes calved out 120 heifers and only helped half a dozen. “They have lots of space, so they can calve a little more naturally than if they were closely confined, so they aren’t as apt to try to take each other’s calves,” he says.

“I don’t check cows at night during calving, since they are out on the range, but I will check heifers at night if I think something is going on. You can tell if one is restless, if they are all bedded down. They give a clue. If it is really stormy we may get up and check the heifers, but the cow herd is pretty much left to their own devices except to make sure that the grass, protein and mineral is always in front of them.” He uses the mineral/urea mix until the first of May when the grass is greening up.

“The cattle stay healthy, and the biggest challenge is the odd spring snowstorm. Also, when we move to different pastures when calves are very young, I’ll spend 40 minutes quietly stirring up the herd, to make sure they are mothered up, and then let them go.” That way no calves get left behind (since cows tend to hide their new calves), or become confused about where Mom is. When you work with the cow instead of against her, everything goes smoothly, with very little stress or labour.

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