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Drop-Back Calving

John and Kelsey Beasley have spent the past seven years in Manitoba’s Parkland converting a grain farm

to a cow-calf operation near Boggy Creek. Now, they’re starting over in Alberta, this time assuming ownership of an established ranch in the eastern grassland range near Youngstown.

The regions are about as different as different can be. The only common denominators are grass, cows and the Beasleys. That’s a combination that recently earned the couple recognition as one of Manitoba’s 2009 graziers of the year.

Beasley Ranching runs a straight Black Angus herd with purebred cattle, registered under the name of Deer River Angus in Alberta, alongside commercial herds there and in Manitoba. The Manitoba ranch remains intact under the management of John’s uncle. John and Kelsey are looking forward to being closer to both their families in Alberta and to putting some of their range management and cattle handling experiences from Manitoba to work on the new place.

Drop-back calving

Of all the new strategies tried in Manitoba, they agree that the drop-back calving system has been the one that’s made the most difference — it brought twice the results with half the work.

Instead of moving pairs out of the calving area into a nursing area as calves are born and mothered up, they leave the pairs in the calving pasture and move the cows that haven’t calved into the next calving pasture. They do this every week or so as calving progresses through May and June, depending on how fast the calves are coming.

The theory is that the low level of pathogens in the environment of a clean calving pasture will stimulate the immune systems of the first-born calves and they will be able to build up resistance to disease, John explains. Calves born later in the same calving area are more susceptible to disease because the increasing pathogen load in the environment can overwhelm their immune systems.

He had read about the idea and it came to mind the first year they moved to Manitoba because they were aware of potential disease concerns with the straw pack resulting from some trader cows the previous owner had housed there. It worked amazingly well and they’ve continued with it every year since. On average they treated a half-dozen calves out of the 800 or so born on the ranch every year.

The drop-back system has other advantages, too.

It’s a lot easier to separate and move bred cows out of the pasture than it is to round up and move cows with young calves at foot. It’s great if you have to move a group any distance, not only because the bred cows can move along at a fair clip, but it doesn’t upset the routine for the pairs. The uncalved cows settle into the new pasture and calve there without any mis-mothering issues.

“Regardless of the size of your operation, you’re only checking one group of uncalved cows, which means you can watch them more closely with less management,” John says. Normally, they check the mature calving group once a day and the heifer calving group twice a day.

The drop-back system automatically sorts the herd into breeding groups as calving progresses and your late cycling cows end up together in one group. Since some of the calving pastures are smaller than others, some of the smaller groups of pairs are gradually brought together to form larger bunches to suit their grazing plan.

Training is time well spent

Gradually is the key word when training cows to quietly move as pairs, Kelsey says.

Training begins at birth for the calves and as a first-calf heifer for the cows. Shortly after calving, they get the pair up and move them together a short distance. If the heifer (or the odd time an older cow) takes a notion to move away without taking her calf, they pressure her until she moves back to the calf, then release the pressure so she gets the idea that the most comfortable place to be is with her calf.

“Because we use our own genetics, we are especially critical of the first-calf heifers. If there is something we didn’t

like about her — calving ease, mothering ability, temperament — we mark her ear and if she has a heifer calf, we mark it too. That way we know we don’t want her in the breeding herd instead of waiting two or three years to find out,” she explains.

Overall, they select for fertility, hardiness and the ability to do well in a forage-based production system. Udder conformation is a priority as well because cows with good udders save you a lot of health problems down the road, John says.

The training leads up to the first moves as the grazing rotation gets underway. They allow time for the cows and calves to pair up and bring the stragglers together before opening the gate. “It takes more time the first few moves, but it’s worth it in the long run,” says Kelsey. “By the third move or so, they’ve figured it out.” That’s not to say they never have ball-ups, but it goes a long way to avoiding that annoying situation of cows taking off on the run without their calves and the calves high tailing it back the way they came.

Kelsey adds the time invested in training working dogs has been well worth it, too. The border collies have been a tremendous help, especially with training the cows and moving them through the bush. They have saved her a lot of steps when she’s on foot or trailing in a vehicle with Hannah.

Another notable first was their use of guardian dogs. Initially they were purchased and trained to protect the feed supply from elk. They did a super job. The Beasleys had no wildlife damage on the 2,000 bales placed on a quarter section for winter bale grazing last year. The dogs played an increasingly important role in protecting the stock as the local wolf problem intensifi ed. It was heartbreaking when the wolves killed one and severely injured the other last year.

The Beasleys were co-operators in a Manitoba Agriculture pilot program using GPS collars to monitor the activity of guardian dogs.

Mixing it up

The starting point for each year’s grazing plan is the in-out dates for each pasture the previous year in combination with the annual forage inventory. The most important planning consideration is deferring grazing on pastures that were grazed hard late in August or early in September the previous year. Those pastures will be left to recover in the spring and grazed in a different time slot. With the rising pressure from wolves they avoided using perimeter pastures for calving.

Pastures range from 100 to 640 acres and the grazing bunches vary from 200 to 300 pairs, or 300 to 500 yearlings. Kelsey develops the initial grazing plan on a computer spreadsheet, but it’s definitely subject to change depending on how the summer unfolds. Out of habit now, they’re constantly doing visual assessments of the pastures during the grazing season and moving the cattle according to their observations rather than on fixed dates.

“Healthy decreaser species in a stand are a good sign. Increaser species mean we need to do something differently,” she explains. Decreasers are plants that livestock prefer. They tend to decrease in vigour and prevalence if they aren’t given time to recover from grazing. Cattle usually avoid the increaser species, so they tend to increase after a slight disturbance, but will decrease under severe grazing pressure.

There’s a fine line between going by the book and making decisions based on your own observations, she says. Their guiding philosophy is that a healthy ecosystem results in a healthy ranch.

One of the challenges in Manitoba was managing a lot of forage production through a short growing season and the long, cold winters. Their goal was to graze from April to December using stockpiled forages to extend the grazing season, then bale graze on different sites each winter.

The tame perennial pastures are a blend of alfalfa, meadow brome and Courtney tall fescue.

Going on the premise that plant diversity will give them more management options, improve the health of the soil and provide balanced nutrition for the animals, they’ve renovated pastures by broadcasting seed and fertilizer and using the hoof action of the animals to work it in. Perennial seed blends have included alfalfa, clover, wheatgrass, needlegrass, milkvetch and trefoil.

Four years ago they began using annual blends for silage, greenfeed and summer swath grazing. They started with a pea-barley mix and have since tried oat and triticale in that blend. They’ve also sown crop cocktails that have included different combinations of sunflowers, kale, forage canola, millet, turnip, hairy vetch and fenugreek. The millet, turnip and hairy vetch produced the best results.

Summer swath grazing makes use of the annuals at their peak nutritional value, gives the perennials a rest a their most vulnerable time, and lets them stockpile perennial forage to extend the grazing season.

They save the turnip cocktails until as late in the season as possible when the plants have nice, plump roots. Utilization is about 95 per cent and the weight gain on both the cows and calves is readily apparent — John estimates 50 pounds on the cows and 25 on the calves over the two weeks.

Crop cocktails have been great for training animals to eat a variety of forages. When the calves are exposed to new plants at a young age, they seem to be more curious and likely to try new things in the future, she explains. For instance, their steer calves were placed into a Manitoba feedlot where potatoes comprise 10 per cent of the ration and the calves didn’t have any hesitation about cleaning up their spuds.

They also tried swathing alfalfa to preserve its quality for late fall and winter grazing. From the grazing angle it was great, but it did take its toll with winterkill where the swaths were. They concluded it would work well in a short alfalfa rotation the year before you work it out — not so well if you want to keep the stand for a long time.

Part of giving new things a try is careful evaluation of the financial and production outcomes. The number one lesson from their Manitoba experience is to spend more time planning things from the start. “It seems there’s never time to do it right the first time, but somehow there’s time to do it twice,” John says. “There’s lots of outside help — financial, technical and people who are willing to help if you ask.”

The Beasleys hosted many tours and events while in Manitoba and are always open to sharing their experiences –good or otherwise. Their new Alberta number is 403-779-2662.

Crop cocktails have been great for training animals to eat a variety of forages. When the calves are exposed to new plants at a young age, they seem to be more curious and likely to try new things in the future, she explains. For instance, their steer calves were placed into a Manitoba feedlot where potatoes comprise 10 per cent of the ration and the calves didn’t have any hesitation about cleaning up their spuds.

They also tried swathing alfalfa to preserve its quality for late fall and winter grazing. From the grazing angle it was great, but it did take its toll with winterkill where the swaths were. They concluded it would work well in a short alfalfa rotation the year before you work it out — not so well if you want to keep the stand for a long time.

Part of giving new things a try is careful evaluation of the financial and production outcomes. The number one lesson from their Manitoba experience is to spend more time planning things from the start. “It seems there’s never time to do it right the first time, but somehow there’s time to do it twice,” John says. “There’s lots of outside help — financial, technical and people who are willing to help if you ask.”

The Beasleys hosted many tours and events while in Manitoba and are always open to sharing their experiences –good or otherwise. Their new Alberta number is 403-779-2662.

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