Mark and Ingrid Tannas, their son Luke and his wife Ceanna run 300 purebred Angus and 125 commercial cows at their ranch west of Water Valley, Alta. Mark is the fourth generation on the ranch. “Our family has been here about 50 years, and we built our first calving barn about 40 years ago. It was quite modern and cutting edge at that time, with hot and cold running water; we felt that was a necessity for cleanliness,” he says.
“We’ve expanded on that goal, with our new barn, moving it and our whole calving operation to a new location. Like all barns in earlier times, our first barn was built close to water for the cattle. For the new barn, we moved to off-site watering to keep bacteria away from the creek,” he says.
“The new barn we built a couple years ago is 51 by 80 feet, with in-floor heating, hot and cold water, and complete living quarters so we can stay there at night and check the cows. We built more calving pens so we can keep the numbers down in each pen, with no more than 50 cows to a pen. The pairs are moved out of those as soon as they calve,” says Mark.
The calving pens have shelters that the cows can go into, and some windbreaks. “After they calve, each pair is moved into a small nurse pen for a few hours, to give them time to bond,” says Ceanna. “When the calves have suckled and are old enough to walk, they are moved to a bigger pasture where they have more space and room,” she says.
It helps to give each pair a chance to bond so that another cow doesn’t try to steal the calf. “It is important for them to be mothered up correctly,” says Ceanna.
The purebred herd starts calving in January and the commercial cattle start calving about March 10. “We try not to put any of them through the barn unless we have to,” says Mark. “Last winter was amazing; a lot of them calved outside and most of them stayed outside and went straight to the bigger pastures as soon as they calved. We don’t want to keep them in too long, but when weather is wet and cold we put them into the barn and just make sure they are out within 24 hours.” Once the calves are dry and have suckled they do fine outside.
There is always someone checking the calving cows. “Our son Luke usually takes the night shift and sleeps at the barn. During the day shift we are out feeding, and checking them also,” says Mark.
The ranch pastures have natural and man-made windbreaks.“We use portable windbreaks that can be moved wherever we need them, and we can clean out the manure from around them after we move them,” says Ceanna. These windbreaks were purchased, and made with steel so they last a long time and are very durable.They can be picked up and moved with a skid steer. If the area is getting dirty, the windbreaks are moved to a new location and the manure in that area can be pushed up into a pile. This can be spread around later to fertilize the surrounding pastures.
“By not feeding cattle in one spot for very long, we help break the cycle of worms and disease,” says Mark. Having a clean area for the calves when they are young helps keep them healthy.
The calves still need to be checked and monitored frequently. The cows are fed once a day but the calves are checked twice a day. “Later in the spring when we get busier, we can’t do that with the commercial cows, but with the purebreds we take time to check them twice a day,” he says.
“We do our best to prevent scours, using scour vaccines before the cows calve, and then move the cows out on clean pasture as soon as possible to reduce the numbers in those calving pens,” says Ceanna. “We also separate heifers from cows when they calve — the heifers and their calves are in a different pasture — to reduce the risk for scours, but we always have a few cases,” she says.
Navel ill is another concern. “We’ve definitely reduced the number of cases just by watching the new calves and making sure they get their colostrum at the right time, and the right amount.” Having a clean place for calving, and adequate colostrum can make a big difference.
“We give the calves about an hour to get up on their own and nurse. If they are not up by then, we help them. We try to keep our cows pretty quiet and they are easy to handle. Most of them, we can go right in the pen with them to help the calf. If the cow is not very friendly we use our maternity pen, and can put her in and restrain her, to help the calf suckle.”
It’s always better to have the dam’s colostrum than to use a substitute commercial product. “We do stock some, from the Saskatoon Colostrum Company, to have on hand if needed, if a heifer doesn’t seem to be milking very well or there’s a cow we can’t milk. If a calf is really cold, we use some high-energy colostrum with a higher fat content, to help the calf get going quicker,” she says.
“The old rule of thumb was to have colostrum in them within 24 hours, but studies have shown that you need to have it in them within four hours to have the best benefit. In cold weather it’s better to have it even sooner. When calves are under cold stress, the intestinal wall closes faster and they don’t absorb antibodies as well,” she explains.
“When calves do come through the barn, we are glad we have the cement floor which is easy to clean. We put in fresh straw for each calving cow or new pair, and when they are moved out we have a disinfection protocol. The floor is washed and disinfected between pairs coming through the barn,” says Ceanna.
“We also have a biosecurity pen. If a sick calf needs to come into the barn, it doesn’t come through the main barn. It’s in a separate pen with a heated floor and its own hot and cold running water,” says Mark. “We never put a sick calf in where there might be other calves later. We have a boot wash in the biosecurity pen, and everything we need to keep things clean.”
The three of them actually have their own boots in that pen. “Last year we never had to put a single calf in there, so that was great. It’s still clean, waiting for the next season,” he says.
“They call it the sick pen, but I call it isolation,” says Ceanna. They try to limit the number of people who come through the facilities.
“We don’t have a loading facility at the new barn,” says Mark. “Our loading facility is a ways from the barn so no trailers or trucks come to the barn. This will help with biosecurity, especially during calving,” he says.
“We feel it is also important to work hand in hand with your vet,” says Ceanna.“Your vet can provide a lot more than just coming for emergency calls.” Your vet can be a source of good information and recommendations.
Last year their ranch participated in some research with UCVM during calving.“We like to support that research and help find information that will help other ranchers.This was a pain study by Dr. Claire Windeyer, looking at dystocia and situations when a calf has to be pulled. Some of the newborn calves in the study were given Metacam and other anti-inflammatories, and others were given a placebo. The calves will be followed through until weaning, to see if that treatment helps those calves later in life — to see if they do better.” Less stress/trauma at birth might get them off to a better start. There will be additional research this calving season at some ranches.
All the calves in this study are weighed, to get weaning weights, to see if there is any measurable difference. “They will look at our treatment rates to see if there is a difference there — to see if the calves were healthier because of less stress at birth.”
“We talk about our facilities and program, but a successful calving program is not about perfect facilities or using a particular brand of vaccine. It’s about mitigating risk and doing the best you can with the resources you have, to prevent issues. There is always room for improvement. Seeking out knowledge is the first step to improvement and I think articles in the Canadian Cattlemen magazine are a great start,” Ceanna says.
“We work a lot with beef cattle veterinarians; I work at Vet AgriHealth Services, a beef cattle consulting practice in Airdrie. They provide protocols and have a software program where we can track our records,” she says.
With this program, every calf that has had an injection or any kind of treatment can be tracked. “There may be a cow whose colostrum isn’t as good, and her calf doesn’t do as well, and you could cull her because of this,” says Mark.
Good records help. “When things are good, you can make money no matter what you do, but when money is tight, you have to look at everything,” he says. Then it’s nice to know how each cow performs, because there is always room to cull.
“This is especially important in the purebred industry because you are providing seedstock for other producers,” he says. You want to keep providing something better than what they already have, so they can keep improving their herds, and you want them to come back again as your customers.
The ranch and cattle
“We’ve been raising Angus-based cattle for 30-plus years, using Angus bulls, red and black,” says Mark. “We have a lot of Crown grazing land, so the cattle are raised out in the bush, with predators and various situations they may get into. There is lots of muskeg, for instance, and lots of bush so they are truly ranch cattle.” The calves grow up hardy and can handle the real world.
“Our purebreds are used to being out there, and travel long distances. We may drive them seven miles to some of the pastures and back. They are used to fending for themselves, and this is the kind of bulls we want to sell. These bulls work for our customers because they have good feet,” he says.
The breeding program is important, matching each cow with a bull that will complement her. “If you have cows that throw big calves, you want a lower birth weight bull. Many ranchers think about buying a heifer bull for heifers, but in their cow herd they think that a bull is a bull. It pays to match the bull to the cows and eliminate the chance for a calving problem. Any time a cow has problems calving, the calf is slower getting up, and slower to suckle. If calves can get up on their own and you don’t have to deal with them, it’s a lot easier,” he says.
Nutrition is also important. “Where we are, we can’t creep feed our cattle. The bears would come eat the oats in the feeders, and we have grizzlies as well as black bears. We’d be inviting them to come eat with our calves!” Mark says.
The cows are fed pellets sometimes during the year, and the calves learn how to eat those alongside their mothers. When the calves are weaned, they know what a pellet is. Nutrition is an important aspect of their cattle program during calving and breeding.
“We have a really good nutrition plan,” says Ceanna. “We generally use bale feeders in winter and early spring so the cattle can eat free choice, and we supplement with free-choice mineral and some protein. Last year we rolled out some alfalfa bales — higher in protein and energy than the hay in the bale feeders. Nutrition is important to keep those cows healthy, and the calves coming out healthy, as well,” she says.
“There are some good programs and Cow Bytes,” says Mark. “People can download those. Also it can be very helpful to talk with a nutritionist. We are starting to do that. It’s important to test your feeds and get those numbers, rather than guessing on how to properly supplement your forages. Just because it’s green doesn’t mean it is good,” he says.