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Building consistency into a seedstock Simmental operation

farm family

Attention to detail paired with a no-fuss production system have been behind the Adair family’s success in building consistency into its seedstock Simmental herd.

The ranch maintains a 42-day breeding period and has a firm policy of culling open females and those that don’t bring in a seedstock-quality bull or heifer calf each year. Cows and heifers that make the cut must also be structurally sound, calve and mother up without assistance, and be able to maintain body condition on pasture and in an extensive winter grazing program without supplemental grain.

“It is tough to have to cull quality animals and especially disappointing if it’s a young cow that comes up open, but we do this because we want to build fertility into the herd and have consistency in the 45 to 50 bulls we offer at our annual sales,” says Ken Adair. He and his wife, Treena, run their herd and pool labour, expertise and equipment with his parents, Bruce and Jean Adair, whose families have long histories of ranching in the Brownfield area, located in the brown soil zone bordering the Battle River in east-central Alberta.

Their calving season evolved from January-February calving in the barn and corrals to calving on pasture with most of the calves now arriving in May. In the early 2000s, the ranch was carrying some commercial cattle that calved in April and after enjoying the perks that come with later calving, the family decided to move 30 of their purebreds into a spring calving program even though it meant a shift to selling rising two-year-olds rather than yearling bulls.

“The first purebred bulls from the spring calving program were born in 2004 and sold in 2006. They were well accepted by buyers, so we moved more over the next year,” Ken explains.

The changeover was completed by 2012 and they haven’t looked back for several reasons. Labour and lifestyle were definitely deciding factors, but the herd benefited as well. The health of the calves has improved considerably because the weather is favourable, whereas, pneumonia was always a concern with calves born and housed in the barn for a couple of days, then turned out into cold winter weather. The cows and replacement heifers have a good two months on quality fresh meadow brome-alfalfa pasture to be cycling before breeding season starts in the middle of July.

Their pastures are divided with permanent and portable electric wire into 20- to 30-acre paddocks for managed grazing with several paddocks managed to stockpile forage for calving season. One of the first challenges they came up against was moving new pairs out of the calving paddock every second or third day. They’ve learned by trial and error that it’s much easier and quicker to leave the pairs behind and move the cows that haven’t calved.

He starts a move by quietly riding through the herd with his working dog at side. Cows that have calved instinctively pick up their calves and trail them off to the side, leaving the cows that haven’t calved in a group that’s content to move on. Within 15 minutes the job is done.

A week or so later, depending on forage growth and water availability, they start bunching pairs into groups and eventually into a large group to drive to another pasture.

Breeding season starts in mid-July with a short artificial insemination (AI) program wherein they visually heat detect and AI for seven days, then give the remaining cows a shot of Estrumate and continue to heat detect and AI for another three days. Afterwards, the cows are sorted into their breeding groups and continue on through the pasture rotations.

Weaning is far less stressful for all concerned when one-piece plastic nose paddles are used in the calves. They stay with the moms for 10 to 14 days and are then separated into a small pasture with room for grazing where they are introduced to their ration.

“There’s no bawling and walking the fence and no problem getting them onto feed,” Ken says. “The nose paddles stay in well for the most part. Five calves out of 100 might lose them and there are always a few smart ones that figure out how to rub the cow’s flank to lift the paddle then dip under.”

The nose paddles stay in place best if the calves are released into an open area with the cows. There’s more chance of them getting bumped out if the cattle are held in a tight space or trailed somewhere right away.

Both the bull-calf and heifer-calf groups are developed through the winter on a silage and grain ration targeting a conservative 1.5 to two pounds of gain per day. By the end of April, they’re back out on pasture.

The second winter, the bulls receive silage and the bred replacement heifers and first calvers winter together on the best-quality feed available, be it bales, swaths or silage.

“Silage is a nice way to make feed because weather doesn’t matter as much as with hay, but it is tedious to feed out,” Adair says. So, last winter they tried a new approach to get around the chore of feeding it daily. Instead of hauling it to one central location, they formed one 400- to 500-tonne pile out in a field for the sale bulls and one in another field for the cows. The piles are packed and covered with plastic held down with silage around the edges, leaving one end open for grazing. Access is controlled with electric fencing and a single strand of polywire on fibreglass posts inserted into the pile around the rim so that cattle can only eat from the open end.

The winter of 2013-14 turned out to be bitterly cold and given free-choice access the cattle did consume more than expected, but all in all, the setup worked well enough to try again this winter.

Adair says one big advantage is that if the animals breach the wire, you’re only dealing with 50 yards of fence to fix and they only break into the silage pile, not out of the field.

The Adairs’ preference for silage and haylage is Cowboy barley, but they do grow oats or soft white spring wheat for crop rotation purposes. This year they made some nice haylage from a new grass-clover stand and planted some fall rye to put up next summer.

Some years they’ve cut the barley for swath grazing or wrapped it up as greenfeed for bale grazing and buy in hay if needed. Chaff piles dropped on stubble fields by a neighbour who pulls a chaff wagon behind the combine have been another feed source for wintering cows in an extensive system.

Optimism prevails

This March will mark Adair Ranch’s 22nd annual bull sale and it has come to take on a different look and feel in recent years with the Internet opening their ranch to the world, thanks to his brother-in-law’s computer know-how in creating and maintaining the ranch’s website. Though his sister and brother-in-law, Tammy and Chuck Dube, are miles away in Minneapolis, they have some cattle on the ranch and this is one way they can be involved in ranch activities.

The sale is held at the Provost Livestock Exchange where it is broadcasted over the Internet with live online bidding on the DLMS system. Sale catalogues are published online complete with pictures and video clips of individual animals.

Even he can now talk about days gone by when photos were few and far between in catalogues and most of their bull buyers were from the local area. Today there are buyers who have never been to the ranch or attended a sale in person. For this reason, they include information about disposition, hair coat, a muscle score and grass test results (pounds per day gained from beginning to end of grazing season) along with the expected progeny differences (EPDs) to give potential sight-unseen buyers finer details that may not be picked up from a photo or video clip alone.

“Our hope is to continue to build on both quality and numbers so we don’t sell many heifers,” Adair says.

If you won’t be able to drop by, visit, or call 403-578-4468.

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