Calving is the year-round focus on Chad and Crystal Ross’s 800-head cow-calf operation, but when calving season actually rolls around it’s the cows’ turn to do the work.
The idea of letting cows calve on their own wouldn’t have entered their minds back in 1999 when they set up their place on the Ross L-7 Ranch homesteaded by Chad’s great grandfather in 1906. His parents, Brian and Rosalie, run another 700 cows from their ranch a few miles east to complete L-7 Ranch and L-7 Feeders, located south of Estevan, Sask., pretty much on the U.S. doorstep.
Letting the cows do the work through calving and growing the calves right on through the winter are two of many changes that have freed up time for life beyond cows, all the while allowing them to gain efficiencies and expand through some really rough times in the beef industry. Now with brighter prospects, they’ve doubled their herd size within the past two years.
“BSE taught us a lot of things about efficiency, not to be afraid of making changes and to make the cows work for us — all good lessons we need to remember going into these good economic times,” says Ross. “Change is continual because there are always new ideas. If you aren’t willing to change, things become stagnant.”
Calving season starts with the cows “carrying the calves” to summer pasture around April 15, a month before calving gets underway. It’s way easier trailing cows the 12 miles than moving pairs any which way you do it and this strategy has proven to be a real labour- and cost-saver, he explains.
The summer pastures have all that calving cows need with stockpiled grass supplemented by free access to grass-alfalfa bales pre-set in a grid pattern that provide shelter, and natural water sources. The rest is up to the cows as the Rosses turn their attention to seeding corn and barley to see the herd and feedlot through the winter months ahead.
They do ride the heifer pasture daily, which is a job they’ve been able to pass on to their daughters Cassidy and Carlee, now 14- and 13-years-old. The main herd, split into groups of about 200, gets checked every few days just as they normally do through summer.
Driving around to catch and tag newborn calves in the pasture was taking too much time and fuel, so that’s now one of the jobs taken care of at branding in mid-July when the bull calves are castrated and all calves are vaccinated with an 8-way clostridial vaccine and 4-way modified live virus vaccine for respiratory diseases.
“We’ve been doing this for 10 years now, having the cows calve on their own, and it works well,” Ross says. “We just don’t have the problems like before. We lose less calves, the cows are healthier out there getting lots of exercise, and there are no disease problems with the calves.”
Looking back, lots of calving problems had to do with genetics — hard-calving cows, weak calves, mis-mothering, poor udders — and a strict policy of removing those problem cows and any that don’t bring in a calf is largely behind their calving success today.
Their breeding program has remained constant through the years with Simmental bulls for the most part on the mature cows, adding Charolais bulls now and then for a three-way cross. The heifers are bred to easy-calving Angus bulls.
Even in the Estevan area, renowned for having the sunniest skies in Canada year-round, the biggest snag in the spring calving system has been late spring blizzards. After a couple of wrecks in April, they bumped the start date to May 1 and still couldn’t escape occasional storms. May 15 seems to be Mother Nature’s turning point, and experience has taught them that it’s much more efficient and enjoyable to work with nature than fight it.
When his family worked in the seedstock business, calving took place in corrals in January and February. With the change to commercial cattle in 1991, they moved to calving on grass in April and the calves were weaned into the farm’s feedlot in November, which brought another set of health issues because of changeable weather conditions.
May calving ushered in later weaning, sometime from December into January. The most recent change to weaning around March 1 was to achieve greater efficiencies and health, Ross says. The cows are able to maintain body condition very well grazing corn and it still gives them a good rest before calving starts in May.
The winter feeding period typically starts around October 1 when all of the cows and calves go through the chute for vaccinations and form into one large group for winter grazing. Access to three-quarters of standing corn is controlled by electric fences dividing it into 40-acre paddocks, but they have free-choice access to hay bales placed on an adjacent quarter of hayland. The combination works nicely to balance the diet and reduce the risk of grain overload on corn. A custom vitamin-mineral package designed by their nutritionist includes an ionophore to help prevent acidosis and coccidiosis and improve feed efficiency.
The electric fence now stays in place year-round and they sow the next corn crop around it to save the time of putting it up and taking it down each year. It takes about three days in the fall to haul and set bales in place on the hayland and another three days or so during winter to top them up. Twine is removed because it’s notorious for catching and ripping out tags, but bales with netwrap are left as is because the fine mesh breaks before the ear tags snap or rip out of the ear.
On average, the corn provides 200 grazing days per animal unit per acre, replacing approximately 7,000 pounds of hay or nearly six 1,250-pound bales per cow. Multiplied by 800 pairs, that’s 4,800 bales worth of summertime baling that no longer has to be done. The bonus is the manure on the land, but in their view the real reward is having the cows grow the calves.
“This way, we can winter the first-calvers with the cows and all of the calves together because we’re not pushing them. It’s an advantage with our single water source, too. They have feed and water available all day and night, so they can eat and drink anytime. They all get their fair share and there’s never any fighting,” Ross says. “The average daily gain on the calves isn’t as high because they move around so much (compared to feeding them in the feedlot), but the cost of gain is so much lower.”
This program has evolved from winter feeding in pens, to extended grazing systems involving combinations of swath grazing, rolling bales out on cereal stubble, using a bale processor to spread hay on stubble land, bunching chaff and straw behind the combine and bale grazing. Each method had merit, but also drawbacks in one way or another for what they were trying to achieve. The never-ending worry, especially with swath grazing and bunch grazing, was losing feed to geese and deer or under heavy snow and ice.
They started growing corn 11 years ago, mainly for silage for the feedlot. The math didn’t work out to spend $100 per acre ensiling corn and then another $16 per tonne hauling it back out to supplement cows in the extended grazing program when the animals could be harvesting it on their own.
They introduced standing corn little by little, first for fall grazing while bale grazing hay and greenfeed for the remainder of the winter, and then gradually worked up to today’s standing corn-hay bale system.
As with any extended grazing system, Ross says it’s important to keep a close watch on cow body condition and provide shelter from winter winds. He works with a nutritionist to be sure the cows are getting adequate nutrition to maintain body condition while nursing a growing calf through their second trimester in the cold.
After weaning, as the weather warms up, they feel comfortable working the cows a little harder. The standing corn is given a final graze along with six quarters of corn stover (combined the previous fall) while still providing free-choice hay bales and the custom vitamin-mineral mix until the year runs full circle with them being trailed to summer pasture in mid-April. Most of the pastures are tame stands of meadow brome with some alfalfa on reclaimed coal-mining ground.
The other side of L-7 is the 1,500-head feedlot, which took the hardest hit of all after the BSE-related border closures in 2003. Even though it’s just coming back into full swing finishing some calves in the last couple of years, it remained an integral link in the farm’s four profit centres during the downturn.
The cow-calf operation feeds the feedlot, the cropping operation supplies the feedlot and the cow-calf operation, and the yearling grasser operation adds value to the calves, Ross explains.
After weaning, their calves go into the feedlot along with 500 to 1,000 purchased calves and/or custom feeders. In the middle of May, the heaviest calves and the purchased calves are sorted into packages and sold.
The remaining 300 feeders and 250 replacement heifers go to grass for the summer. The steers return to the feedlot in the fall while the bred replacement heifers winter on corn stubble near the feedlot where they have access to grazing corn along with a total mixed ration.
Changes aimed at improving efficiencies have proven to be as good as a rest in some regards, but they’ve not been without challenges along the way. One of their best networks for advice has been the fellow members of the Saskatchewan Cattle Feeders Association. Ross currently serves on the board of directors, and says there’s a lot to be said for learning from the practical experiences of others.
Planning for change has become routine for the Rosses, but with that there’s always a need for contingency plans and some flexibility.