Breeding and calving heifers is a critical part of cow-calf operations. No specific model fits every ranch, and even successful systems require modification.
“Heifers can be a challenge; it doesn’t matter who you are,” said Saskatchewan rancher Lynn Grant. Lynn, along with his wife Sherri, and brother Dean and his family, operate a large ranch at Val Marie, Sask.
“We’re not a lot different than anyone else,” mused Lynn. “We are a cow-calf operation, we winter all our calves then sell them as feeder yearling off grass from late July to October.”
He added they try to produce all of their own feed and roughage, and bring in pellets or barley for supplements as needed. While they may be similar to other ranchers, the Grants carefully evaluate and modify their production practices, including heifer management, regularly.
“Ranching is a continual evolution of learning,” Lynn said, adding that they adopt techniques or new ideas based on the experiences of themselves and others.
“There are things to learn every day,” agreed Sherri.
Managing first-time cows from breeding through calving
The Grants manage their cows extensively, grazing stockpiled grass as long into the cold months as possible. The main cow herd calves in the hills during May and June, but they breed and calve their heifers a bit differently. They incorporate replacement heifers that were born and raised on their ranch partly because the animals are already suited to their environment and management. When it comes to breeding, they aim to minimize dystocia by selecting easy-calving bulls. They traditionally breed heifers to calve 10 days to two weeks ahead of their mature cows in order to give them that extra time to recover and re-breed.
In the past, they restricted breeding to a 30-day interval for their heifers, yet calving took place over a 50-day time frame, with some calves arriving early and others arriving late.
“When you get into the final 10 days of calving heifers the percentage of loss tends to increase because you aren’t looking after them as closely as you were at the beginning,” Lynn explained. “Plus those long-gestation calving heifers can have more issues,” he added.
After some thought and research, about four or five years ago they decided to switch to a synchronized breeding and artificial insemination program in their replacements to concentrate their heifer-calving period.
“We liked that all the heifers would calve in an 18-day time frame. You had enough calves coming in a short enough period of time that it made sense to pay close attention,” Lynn said.
While the risk of death loss was minimized due to closer supervision, the intense calving rate caused other challenges. In a 2016 blog post, Sherri explained that it was “raining calves” with the heifers birthing a dozen newborns each day. The heifers calve in an 80-acre pasture that is a couple of miles from their headquarters, or even further if spring flooding restricts access.
“The challenge with having that many heifers calving in a close area is they have the opportunity to mis-mother,” Lynn said. To help manage calving confusion, the Grants installed a maternity ward using a pre-existing permanent windbreak fence in combination with 24-foot portable heavy duty panels set up in pens. The moveable panels were something the Grants already had on hand and could be repurposed after calving.
Lynn acknowledged that the setup worked well for them and has required few, if any, modifications.
“You can minimize problems and pen up any heifer that may have trouble. We don’t check at night, so the other advantage is if you are out there just before dark, we could pen a heifer that is going to start calving,” he added.
The Grants were just as frank about what needed to change as they were about their successes. While they appreciated the concentrated calving period that came with fixed-time breeding, they were less satisfied with their A.I. conception rates over the past few seasons. As conception rates go down, the production cost of a fixed-time program increase, so they are considering using walking sires once again.
“We will stick with a 30-day breeding season, regardless,” Lynn confirmed. “I’m a firm believer in a short breeding season for the heifers — you can breed more and accept that your better females get pregnant.”
Building bridges to consumers
Sherri creates posts and shares photos online about everyday ranch activities, like calving heifers. However, her involvement in consumer awareness goes back several decades. Her experiences include classroom visits, engaging urban dwellers at exhibition events, and co-authoring the children’s book Where Beef Comes From with her daughter-in-law, Avery Grant.
“One of the reasons the book came about is that kids go to Agribition and they learn about beef, but when they return to the classroom, the teacher doesn’t have the resources or information to answer the questions and support inquiring minds,” Sherri explained.
While mediums, particularly social media, have changed over time, the message has remained largely the same. “There have always been people with misconceptions about the beef industry who are looking for straightforward information about where their food is coming from,” she said.
“My favourite way that we become most influential is authentic, one-on-one conversations,” she added. “That is what lets consumers see that we care about them, we are like them, we care about their concerns, and we care about what our families eat and what they eat too.”
This passion is what led Sherri to be honoured with the 2018 Food and Farming Champion Award by Farm and Food Care Saskatchewan.
“It was a total shock to me. I had never considered it but it’s amazing to be recognized by your peers who appreciate the passion, the care, the effort you put in,” she said.
Whether the Grant family is overhauling their breeding protocol, or connecting with consumers, they are ever-changing and thinking ahead.
“We don’t have all the answers so we have to keep trying to do a better job,” said Lynn.
“We want there to be something there for the next generation. We want to have made our mark,” said Sherri.
The Beef Cattle Research Council blog originally published a shorter article on the Grant’s heifer calving maternity pens in November 2018.