“ These days, we need more cows to make a living, but we don’t need more work.”
Many cattlemen agree, but Richard Alger is making it work for him on his ranch at Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan.
The first part is that the calves are almost all born without help. This past spring, Alger had to help one heifer and one cow. Both calves had a foot back, so only needed a little help.
“Sometimes I have to help a few more,” says Alger. “But, I’m not nervous going to sleep at night.”
He attributes that partly to feeding in the afternoon, but mainly credits his shift to bulls from an Angus breeder who uses bulls with low birthweight and good calving ease EPDs as well as good growth after weaning. Although he’s quick to note that every breed has its place, the Angus cattle have worked well for him in his operation. In the early ’80s Alger used Charolais on his mainly Hereford cows, looking for buckskin calves that the market wanted. The market definitely wasn’t paying as much for straight Hereford calves.
“The Char-cross calves were bigger, but I also had more calving problems,” he says. “Maybe I could have found bulls with lower birthweight, but when you’re marketing calves in fall, you want them as big as possible.
“If you’re in this business to make a living, you have to follow the market. It dictates colour and breed.”
At first he didn’t have plans to move to a commercial Angus herd, but after he’d used a couple of Angus bulls on his heifers Alger liked the low birthweight and easy delivery. And, there was a market for red calves. Even better, the Angus cross calves performed well.
As his herd grew, Alger didn’t have bunk space to feed oats to the calves after weaning, The Angus-cross calves grew well on home-grown forage rations.
“At weaning at the end of October, the calves are probably lighter than the Char-cross and Simmental calves,” he says. “But in my operation it was worthwhile. The workload was a bit less at calving time and the feed consumption of the Angus-cross cows was a lot lower, so my input costs went down.”
Alger kept quite a few replacements from his first bull, a Landmarksired animal. They did well and he bought another Angus as a heifer bull. Then, he went back to the same breeder, Brian and Elaine Edwards and their Valleyhills Angus herd at Glaslyn, Sask., for bulls for the whole herd. Over the years, he’s bought most of his bulls, almost 80, from the Edwards. At first he used both red and black, but for the last five years he’s used blacks.
Using a single breeder doesn’t concern him. He pays attention to bloodlines and as Edwards sells bulls by private treaty, they have time to figure the best bulls for the situation.
“Brian’s bulls are always near the top for average daily gain at bull test stations,” says Alger. “And the calves were good quality animals that did well on my forage rations. It’s easy for me to go and see their animals, and they’ve always been good people to deal with.
“Getting bulls from different breeders, especially if you want one with low birthweight, can leave you with inconsistent frame sizes in the herd. Now that my cows are straight-bred Angus, their frame size is quite consistent between 1,250 and 1,350. And, they’re fairly easy keeping. It seems the amount I need to feed hasn’t gone up as much as my cow numbers.”
Alger has made cutting his workload a priority. In the summer, he’s haying and in winter he plays and coaches hockey. He’s made enough changes he doesn’t hesitate to take a three-day weekend for a tournament.
He’s moved his calving season from late February to April because he’ll have grass soon after the calves are born. And even if it is cold, a black calf warms up quickly in the spring sun. He weans in late November or early December.
“I like to have some snow on the ground and to have been feeding cows and calves together for a few weeks. The calves are used to being fed, the pens aren’t dusty, and usually we have better weather — not fluctuating between warm and cold.”
Except right after weaning, when he feeds calves every day, Alger starts up his tractor about once every three days to feed. For the calves, he sets out feed in each of three pens and gives them a fresh pen each day. For the cows, he puts out about five days feed at a time.
“It saves me a lot of time,” he says. “It doesn’t take long to put out about 16 bales with my bale mover. And, the second calvers do better because they don’t have to compete for the better-quality feed every day. Even if there’s a storm, they do fine, they have plenty of shelter.”
The cows stay out until just before calving time. And they go out to fields closer to summer grazing as soon as there’s enough cows for a breeding group in the calved bunch, Alger doesn’t work with them again until weaning.
Calving has made the biggest difference, though.
“It’s not always as good as last year,” he says. “Usually I help about 10 cows that need some kind of assistance. And I still feel for horns, but we had none last year.
Feeding in the afternoon seems to increase the chance of daytime calves, but I don’t check after about 11. Our problems with too-big calves have disappeared.
“The worst part of getting a hard-calving bull is that it’s so nerve-wracking. You’re working away helping a cow deliver her calf, but all the time, you’re worrying about what else is yet to come. Even though you buy a bull on his birthweight and EPDs, you don’t really know for sure what kind of calf you’re going to get, hard-calving or whatever other problem.
“I’d rather grow a calf once it hits the ground than one that grows too much inside the cow.”