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Producers pay attention to body condition

Everyone views it a bit differently, but manage 
for the proper body condition for their operation

Ross Macdonald  uses condition scoring as a tool for selecting  females suited to conditions on his  south Saskatchewan ranch.

Beef producers across Canada appreciate the benefits of keeping cows and heifers and even feeder cattle in good condition, particularly over winter, for a variety of production and economic reasons.

With cold temperatures and winter rations it can take a lot of feed to improve animal condition over the winter feeding period, so many aim to have cattle in good shape heading into fall. Borrowing a bit from the Goldilocks school of management for optimum performance you don’t want cattle too thin or too fat — it’s recommended that somewhere in the middle is just right.

And what is good condition? Most producers understand the concept of Body Condition Scoring (BCS) — which on the Canadian BCS system ranks cattle on a scale from one to five (one being thin, five being fat). The U.S. has a wider scale ranking cattle on a scale of one to nine. There is plenty of good information on the internet describing body condition scoring. And the Beef Cattle Research Council has developed a video that explains the process on its website.

While each beef operation has a different approach, the message from producers is that it requires some management to keep cattle in proper condition for optimum performance, but it pays dividends.

Darren Bevans

Deseret Ranches, Raymond, Alta.

With largely a year-round grazing operation, Darren Bevans, general manager with Deseret Ranches in southern Alberta, says it requires more management to keep cattle in optimum condition, but allowing cattle to do most of the harvesting does save on feeding costs.

As a large commercial cow-calf operation, the ranch has followed a year-round grazing program for many years in the Chinook belt south of Lethbridge. Cow-calf pairs are on spring, summer and fall pasture right up until December and then are moved to swath grazing in January. The ranch produces straight stands of oats and triticale to be cut for swath grazing.

“Once we get into late fall we monitor cattle very closely,” says Bevans. All ranch employees are properly trained in condition scoring (BCS). Deseret Ranches follows the U.S. BCS system. They aim to keep cows and heifers in the mid-range, scoring about five. (That would be about a 2.5 to three score on the five-point Canadian BCS scale.)

The herd is monitored and visually scored “with a very practical applied system” every week during winter. If it appears that condition is slipping, particularly under severely cold and windy conditions, cattle are supplemented with good alfalfa hay.

“We just can’t turn them out on swaths and assume they will do well,” says Bevans. “That is a risky assumption. A wreck can happen very quickly. So we do have to watch it carefully, and supplement as needed. But compared to having cattle on full baled feed all winter it sure helps to reduce costs.”

Cows and bred heifers are managed separately, he says. Bred heifers that are still growing themselves have higher nutrient requirements and may need more feed supplements over winter. “We could run the cows and heifers together but in meeting the feed requirements of the bred heifers, the cows might be overfed,” he says. “So it saves on feed and costs to run them separately.”

Producers across the country appear to have a flexible view of the ideal BCS for their herds. photo: Supplied

With their carefully managed system, cattle are in good condition for May calving and in good shape for rebreeding a few weeks later. “The reproductive performance is very good,” says Bevans. “Like any ranch there is always room for improvement, but we have very healthy rates. But again, the whole system has to be properly managed because it doesn’t take much to fall off the edge.”

Ross Macdonald

98 Ranch Inc., Lake Alma, Sask.

For the past dozen years, Ross Macdonald has focused on selecting cattle that perform best under the environmental conditions and feed resources they have on their southern Saskatchewan ranch.

Macdonald manages the 75 per cent native and 25 per cent tame forage pastures for a 10- to 11-month grazing season and selects, for lack of a better term, for “easy keeping” cattle. On the ranch south of Regina near the U.S. border, he runs a small herd of purebred Hereford cattle, as well as a Hereford/Angus cross commercial herd. Cow-calf pairs are out on pasture until the Saskatchewan winter settles in, usually in late December and January. Animals are then moved onto a bale grazing system, closer into the yard where there is more shelter. Cows and heifers are managed as one herd. He buys all the hay for winter bale grazing — usually a blend of wheatgrass/alfalfa or meadow brome/alfalfa hay.

“We actually use the conditions here as part of our selection process to improve and build the herd,” says Mcdonald. He monitors body condition of cattle closely in late fall and early winter. Anything that shows sign of slipping in condition is pulled out and eventually culled.

“December of 2016 was a good example,” he says. Cows and heifers were still out on pasture — on a good stand of stockpiled grass. Then came an early blast of winter.

“Once conditions settled down we evaluated the cattle and anything that had lost condition during that period was pulled out,” he says. Nothing was suffering, but any older cows or heifers that had slipped in condition were culled. He uses a visual body condition scoring system to evaluate cattle.

“What we are selecting for is those cattle that continue to do well on the feed we have available under the conditions we have in southern Saskatchewan,” says Macdonald. “We are looking for that handful of cattle that are genetically predisposed to do well on the least-cost forages we have available.” When they started building the herd about 16 years ago, they sought advice from other ranchers who had selected cattle to match ranch resources.

As cattle are on the early-winter stockpiled forage as well as on bale grazing, they also have access to protein mineral tubs and free-choice salt. The Macdonald herd begins calving in late May through June — about a 30-day calving period for heifers and 40 days for cows — with calves staying with their mothers until being fenceline weaned in February or March. He wants calves to be exposed to the protein tubs well before weaning so after weaning they are already familiar with the feed and supplements.

Brian Pelleboer

Wyoming, Ont.

With a diversified farming operation, Brian Pelleboer says his biggest concern with his commercial cow-calf herd is to try to keep them from being over-conditioned.

Pelleboer, who farms with family members at Wyoming, about 40 minutes west of London near the U.S. border, says in running beef cattle along with a dairy goat operation he’s developed a feeding synergy that benefits both classes of livestock. He also produces corn, soybean and wheat cash crops.

“My beef cattle do go out to pasture, but in reality they are on feed year-round,” he says. “I want a good fresh feed supply of haylage and corn silage in front of the milking goats each day. So the beef cows clean up the haylage and silage so I can give the goats fresh feed.”

Pelleboer currently runs a herd of about 75 head of Angus/Simmental/Gelbvieh cross beef cattle and is milking about 400 head of goats, although is looking to more than double that with an expansion of the goat dairy.

“This isn’t your traditional beef operation,” he says. “I don’t have to worry about cattle being under-condition. I have to watch that they don’t get over-conditioned.”

The livestock ration, which is fed as a total mixed ration (TMR), will vary depending on the time of year and availability of feed stuffs. It can include haylage, corn silage, ryelage, oatlage, or dry distillers grain, for example, as well as dry hay and straw.

“Many of the feeds or blends are way too strong for beef cattle so I have to look at slowing it down with hay or straw,” says Pelleboer. “But with the TMR I can put together anything I want.”

He doesn’t perform a formal body condition score on the beef herd, “but subconsciously I am always watching.” If cattle are showing signs of laying down too much fat, he backs off on feed quality. He’s aware of issues that can develop particularly at calving with over-conditioned cows. With a fall calving herd, the cows aren’t getting as much exercise, the cow might be fat, and on the high-quality ration that unborn calf has also been growing and can be big, so all factors can lead to difficulty.

Pelleboer does want cows to produce a decent sized calf, because he will be raising calves to finish in about 14 months.

Over-conditioning isn’t a concern among replacement heifers as they are maintained on rented summer pasture. Although he has to manage carefully to prevent over-conditioning in the beef cattle, he says conception rates are very good. Many of the cows over a 12-month period are calving twice so they are breeding back in a timely manner.

Jack McCoubrey

London-area, Ont.

Jack McCoubrey says his “high production” Simmental and Angus cowherd performs very well on the high side of body condition.

With a fall calving season that begins in mid-October, those cows with calves at their side will overwinter partly on corn stalk grazing and, later, on a sweet corn waste and hay in total mixed ration. Then they go out to pasture first week of May the following spring and wean 800-900-1000 pound-plus calves come mid-August. And cows are maintained at a pretty consistent 5.5 to six body condition score.

“I like looking at my cattle and I like looking at something that has some appeal,” says McCoubrey who farms in Middlesex County just west of London. The 60-head cow herd, that is out on native grass pasture most of the summer, has the genetics designed to maintain their condition.

McCoubrey has been developing the herd since 1994. He produces seedstock of both red and black Simmental and Angus, and has also developed a market for crossbred bulls and replacement heifers.

The cow herd is out on spring, summer and fall pasture until about November 1 and then moves in to clean up about 200 acres of corn stalks. The herd is brought into the yard in about mid-January and put on a TMR ration including sweet corn waste, second-cut hay and/or straw for about 150 days.

Even though body condition is on the high side of what some research recommends he says the herd doesn’t have an issue with calving difficulty or conception rates, targeting a 45- to 50-day calving interval.

Nathan Phinney

Sackville, N.B.

Looking at the overall benefit to the New Brunswick beef industry, Nathan Phinney says it is important for beef producers to pay attention to keeping animals in good condition, and managing grazing systems to optimize rates of gain.

Phinney, who is a fourth-generation beef producer, says as he owns and manages a 2,000-head backgrounding and custom feeding operation, it isn’t hard to tell the difference between cattle that have been managed in good condition and those that haven’t.

“When you buy cattle you can just tell the calves that are 200 to 250 pounds lighter haven’t had the same management as those that come in the sale ring at 550 to 600 pounds,” he says. “And for many producers in this part of the country it is about learning to do a better job with pasture management.”

Phinney says producers in New Brunswick and other parts of Atlantic Canada are moving away from season-long grazing practices and just learning to develop more intensively managed grazing systems, which can improve condition and rates of gain on both cows and calves.

“With our summer growing conditions in New Brunswick we can handle a stocking rate at a ratio of 1:1 (animal/per acre) over the grazing season,” he says. “So we have that potential and natural advantage. We are just starting to see more cross fencing used and more intensive grazing systems used. With improved management those calves and cows can come off pasture with heavier weights and in better condition, without supplementation. And that’s a benefit to the whole beef production chain.”

He says he would like to see the New Brunswick beef industry develop to be able to supply more of the regional beef demand.

About the author


Lee Hart

Lee Hart is a long-time agricultural writer and contributor to Canadian Cattlemen magazine based in Calgary. Contact him by email at [email protected]



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