Jordan Buba manages the calving at Lewis Farms near Edmonton, Alta. She is a fourth-generation family member at the farm. “We run about 1,000 cows along with the farming — grain and seed potatoes. We have two calving seasons, with two groups of cows. We calve about 400 cows in December-January and about 600 in May-June. The two herds are the same, genetically, and are registered cows. About two-thirds of the herd is registered Simmental and the other third registered Angus. We have Red and Black Angus, and Red and Black Simmental, along with some fullblood Simmentals. We started with Simmental in 1972, and we’ve had Angus for the past 15 years,” she says.
All the cows are out grazing from May until November or December, on pasture or on swath grazing later in the fall. “The winter-calving cows all come home in the fall while our summer-calving cows stay out on pasture, being fed a little, but they don’t require as much management through winter; they are not trying to sustain themselves and nurse a calf,” says Buba.
The ranch utilizes multiple bull groups for the summer-calving cows, splitting the cows into groups of 100, with five bulls to a group. “The winter-calving cows are bred in the spring while they are still close to home, so we have smaller groups — 30 to 50 head — with a single bull. They are being fed with a silage wagon and we can keep close track of them,” she says.
“We started calving in the winter at first, mainly because we have our bull sale the end of February. Having December/January calves allows us to sell bulls that are over a year old. This makes semen-testing a little easier than with younger bulls, and allows them to develop that much more before sale time. Also, we are done calving before the sale, leaving us two or three weeks to get set up for the sale,” she explains. The calving barn is used for the sale ring.
“The bulls are housed 3.5 miles from the main farm, so we bring them up a week before the sale. If we have all the cows gone from the barn area by then, it makes things easier for bringing the bulls up here.”
The breeding period is 45 days for the winter-calving cows. “There are always a few young cows that don’t get bred back that quickly, so we started the summer program because we felt we were losing too many good young cows that just couldn’t get caught up. We bought more land near Sangudo in 2000, an hour northwest of us, and started the summer herd there,” says Buba.
“Originally we started that herd with cows from our winter program but now that herd is self-sustaining; the heifer calves born in that calving period end up in that calving period. We don’t have to worry about cold weather when those cows are calving — just the odd rainstorm. It’s really nice, calving out there,” she adds.
The summer-calving herd is calved in two groups. The heifers are all in one group along with about a third of the mature cows. The rest of the cows are in the other group.
“I calve those cows all by myself, checking them periodically through the day until it gets dark. They are on their own for the night.” If a calf is born unattended, it won’t have frozen ears at that time of year.
“This group is low-management and we simply pull pairs out of the calving group as they calve. With the heifers we leave those pairs in the pasture they are in and let the cows that haven’t calved rotate into the next grass piece.”
The summer-calving herd calves very easily. “Those cows are in good body condition but maybe a score or two behind the winter-calving cows. We find birth weight on summer calves average five to 10 pounds lighter than the winter-born calves. We try to use calving-ease sires for the heifers; we’re not trying out a new bull on them for the first time. With both calving seasons we pay attention to birth weights.”
The winter-calving group is monitored more closely. “There are 200 less cows and we have four or five more people helping calve that group because weather can be cold. Temperatures probably average -15 C in winter and we can get -40 C with windchill.”
The cows that might be calving are put into a big tent barn during the night, with a couple of cameras set up for closer monitoring. “We run two groups for the winter calving. More than half the cows — the closest ones to calve — stay up by the barn, and the other group comes up at night to the barn but are out farther, in a paddock, during the day. Those are just checked a couple times a day whereas the group at the barn is being checked every hour,” explains Buba.
“The cameras in the barn allow us to look at those cows more often than walking through them, and we are disturbing those cows less, though we are physically checking them every hour. This is a big cover-all building and we can get 250 cows in there loose at night. Our first calving group is all inside for the night. At the start and end of that calving season we check them every three hours at night, but when they are calving steadily we go through them every hour,” she says.
The night checkers work in shifts. “At the start of calving there are three of us and we each take one shift during the night. When it gets really busy — for two to three weeks in the middle of calving — we have a full-time guy come in just for the nights. The rest of us can then be all-hands-on-deck during the day,” says Buba.
There are lights inside this big enclosure, and cameras enable constant monitoring. The cover-all is just a tent, but keeps the cows sheltered and out of the wind — and the body heat of that many cows keeps it much warmer than the outdoor temperature. “It can get quite hot and humid so we are always fanning cold air in there for ventilation,” she explains.
A lot of bedding is utilized, to keep things clean. “Everything outside is straw, but in the barn we use wood shavings. We clean the whole barn multiple times during the month and a half we’re calving, to help prevent navel infections. The four hours it takes to clean the barn saves many hours of treating calves,” she says.
“We have an alley on one side of this big cover-all, so we can pull any cow out of the group if we need to. As each cow calves, we move her out into the actual calving barn, which is heated. She comes into an individual stall in the heated part of the barn, for about a day, depending on weather, to let that new calf dry off and get a day or two old, and then we put the pair outside. Most of the pairs are in individual stalls in that barn, though we have a few bigger pens that we can put two or three pairs in, but they are mostly in individual stalls until they go outside,” she says.
“We have eight big shed pens, set up around the yard, and all the new pairs get put into those as they come out of the barn — put into the various pens by age — in their transition from barn to field.” The young ones are not put with older ones, and this helps reduce sickness in the young calves.
“If we do get a bout of scours, going out, we hope to keep it just in that group of calves and not spread it to the newborn calves. We don’t introduce new calves into a month-old group,” she says. If a person can keep them separated by age, it cuts down on exposure of the youngest ones to disease pathogens.
Putting new pairs out with older ones is also more stress on the cows. “They have to get their pecking order sorted out, and if you are putting new pairs in there every day there is more fighting, which is not what you want. We let each group figure things out and they stay in that group (with calves about the same age) until breeding. Then we put them out into their various breeding groups in mid-March,” she explains.
With the calving cows checked this closely, problems can be dealt with, and death loss in newborn calves is very low. “We rarely lose calves in the winter group, but lose a few more in the summer group because they are not being checked so often. We might lose a backward calf that comes during the night or some other odd problem. But with twins to make up for some of those losses, we still have an extremely good percentage.”
Calves get several medications at birth. “Every calf gets a nasal injection of PMH, which is the live IBR vaccine, along with a shot of Bio-Selenium, A, D and E. The cows all get pre-calving vaccinations, which include ScourGuard as well as a live IBR shot — and then a shot for blackleg during the summer when we preg-check. The winter group is bred for 45 days starting mid-March and preg-checked mid-July. The summer-born group is bred from late July until end of September and preg-checked in December,” says Buba.
Some of the highly productive cows that end up open from the winter group can be put into the summer calving program. Those are preg-checked the beginning of December. They are rechecked in mid-April when that group gets their scour vaccine and IBR. Having two groups helps spread the work so it’s not unmanageable in the winter, but it makes for a busy year.
“We are calving in December-January, breeding those cows in March-April, and calving again in May-June and breeding those cows in July, then we go right to weaning for the early group. It’s constantly busy.”
All of the cows are freeze branded for individual ID. This makes it easy to see their numbers. “We re-shave the brand every year, to make it crisp and easy to see, especially for calving time. After a year of hair growth, a 3 might look like a 5, so we must make sure we have the numbers correct for records on the purebred cows.”
The ranch uses several handy methods for making calf handling easier. “We have a cart we pull behind a quad, and the cart has a scale built into it. This has helped a lot in cutting down on navel problems and making calf-weighing easier. Instead of pushing calves to a stationed weigh scale that we have to clean, we just run around with the calf cart. We also use it if a calf is born outside and needs to come in the barn. We just bring him in with the cart and he’s getting weighed at the same time,” she says.
Every calf passes over that scale to get birth weight, and the cart is also handy for transporting calves. “I use it in the summer group when pulling pairs out. With their calf in the cart, the cows follow it quite well. It’s open-sided so they can see and smell the calf,” Buba says.
“Calving in winter is labour-intensive, but more people in our part of the country do that than calve in summer. The main thing is providing shelter and protection for the baby calves. We were calving more than 500 cows in the winter, and it was because of this challenge that we started the summer group. Calving that many during cold weather was too much; we had groups that were too large. We needed smaller, more manageable groups, to cut down on sickness. Some winters can be difficult if a person has to battle scours. Luckily we have a vet on call at the ranch; it’s very handy having Uncle Roy!”
Drones to check cows
“We are considering using drones in the cover-all tent for closer monitoring. In the early morning before the cows go back outside, the humidity is so high in that building (creating a fog) that the cameras can’t see enough. They are too high, above that fog. We want to see if a drone will work — so we can have a camera moving right above the cows, under the fog they create. We would use the drone indoors when cows are inside at night, and we could send it out when our second group of cows goes outside during the day. It could zip by them, and make sure nothing gets missed on the last sort. We’d be able to see any cows that might be calving out there,” says Buba.
“Roy likes the idea of using a drone. We have already done some drone work with promo videos for the farm, especially for the bulls. We had drones flying over the bulls and they seem to be fine with it. They are more curious than scared of it; the drone doesn’t seem to disrupt things,” she says. The drones don’t make much noise, just a buzzing sound, like a very loud bee.
“We don’t actually have one yet, but he wants to borrow a few to figure out the size we’d want. It would be handy to use in the cover-all, to get under the fog, and to use in the corral buildings — which are 100 feet by 200. By the time you walk through there and disrupt the cows, it would be easier and faster to monitor them with a drone that could just fly over the top of the group. This would keep the cows quiet and undisturbed.”