The vast majority of Ontario producers calve their cows either in the barn or very close to it early in the year, but the current trend is toward later calving dates on grass, according to Craig McLaughlin, a Beef Farmers of Ontario (BFO) board director and cow-calf producer in Renfrew County.
A survey conducted in 2017 by researchers at the University of Guelph, in partnership with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, BFO and the Beef Cattle Research Council, found that 80 per cent of the province’s producers use barns or small grass paddocks close to the barn for calving. The data was taken from the 2016 calf crop.
“The start of calving season is all over the map,” McLaughlin says, noting that a lot depends on the operation and what else the producer has going on.
“Seedstock farmers producing bulls need to calve in January or February so they’re big enough for the next breeding season and for the show circuit,” he says.
Quite a few calve out in March and April in or near barns. But like McLaughlin, more are turning to later calving seasons — his starts in mid-May — when the pastures are lush with the first grass of the season.
“It’s Mother Nature’s tonic,” he says, adding that the pasture’s nutritional content is high. He’s had good success as long as he has supplemented with a mineral program as well.
The other advantages of pasture calving are less need for labour for moving the cattle in and out of barns, less need for bedding and savings on feed.
Producer situation critical
Many Ontario beef farmers also have off-farm incomes or grow cash crops, which affect the timing of calving season.
“When the fields need to be planted, there’s no time to check cattle,” McLaughlin says. He knows of one crop and beef farmer who has his calving season in late summer and early fall because the soybean and corn crops come off later.
Calving indoors does have a number of advantages, such as having heavier calves available during the traditional October-November sales period, according to James Byrne. Byrne is the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs’ beef cattle specialist in Lindsay.
But indoor calving can come at a price, he says, noting that the disease risk may be higher.
“Fifty-two per cent of all calf deaths are a result of scours,” he says. Calving heifers and cows in the same barn presents a higher disease risk because heifers have lower antibody and colostrum levels and aren’t as well equipped to get their calves suckling as the cows. Separating out the heifers means the producer can keep a closer eye on their progress.
Making sure the calving environment is as clean, dry and hygienic as possible is important to prevent the transmission of the bacteria associated with scours.
Breeding season and pregnancy checks
Byrne would like to see producers shorten the breeding season and pregnancy check more.
“Research shows that the ideal length of time to expose cows for breeding is 60 to 65 days, and that heifers should be bred before cows,” he says.
Typically, heifers have an 80- to 100-day period between their first birth and second breeding, whereas cows need only 50 to 60 days.
Compact breeding and calving periods produce the optimal “one calf per cow per year” result. This means better uniformity in the size, age, weight and quality of the calves, which makes them more attractive to buyers, Byrne says.
McLaughlin says that pregnancy checking again depends on the kind of operator involved. The larger the operation and the more dependent it is on beef cattle, the more likely pregnancy checking will occur.
With a herd of 100 mostly Red Angus, he generally only checks his heifers and older cows, but has a caveat.
“It depends on the feed situation,” he says. If there’s a feed shortage and it’s expensive, he preg checks all of them.
Early intervention and weaning
More than half of the survey participants said that they weighed, sexed and supplemented their calves with selenium, and vitamins A, D and E within the first 24 hours of a calf’s life. Other practices included bull calf castration, colostrum supplementation, tattooing and iodine navel dipping.
But only one-fifth of the producers vaccinate their calves for scours, and Byrne would like to see that number increase as well, given that it’s such a prevalent reason for calf deaths.
The study showed that more than half of the producers wean their calves using traditional separation methods, 22 per cent used fenceline separation which allows nose-to-nose contact but not nursing, 15 per cent use two-stage weaning and only five per cent allow for natural weaning, like McLaughlin.
“I let them nurse for nine or 10 months, but will pull them off in the winter if either the calf or the cow is failing,” he says.
He finds that it’s the most natural, and least stressful, way to wean.
Byrne says research from the University of Guelph has demonstrated that using two-stage weaning — in which plastic nose flaps are put into the calves’ nostrils to prevent them from suckling and then removed when they’re weaned — means the calves are less stressed and are therefore less likely to pick up disease in feedlots and sales barns. They also gain weight faster and perform better.
“The biggest advancement is that there’s more knowledge in the industry,” says McLaughlin, noting that since BSE hit in 2003, newer producers coming into the system want to make changes.
“There’s no right or wrong system. It’s whatever system works for producers,” he says. “Calving seasons are better overall, because producers have learned about mineral programs and nutrition and calving ease, and the biggest thing is that they’re learning from other producers.”