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HEIFERS ARE HIS FOCUS NOW

Duane Nichols has stepped out of his comfort zone of the past 35 years as a purebred breeder to raise commercial first-cross (F1) females for the new generation of ranchers entering the beef industry. They want moderate cows with hardiness and longevity that can do more for less, last a long time in the herd and make them money, he says. That’s a tall order to fill!

He feels purebred breeders are well positioned to offer that product by raising quality crossbred females with hybrid vigour and known parentage. It was something he had been considering for several years and the devastating effect of the BSE crisis on market prices was the tipping point.

“Most of the research I have been receiving since then has been about cutting feed costs. Bale grazing, swath grazing and stockpiled grazing to extend the grazing season are all good ideas in conjunction with common sense,” says Nichols, who ranches north of High Prairie in Alberta’s Peace River country. Many ranchers have found that those cost-saving measures could only take them so far and often came at the expense of open cows at the end of the summer. Now, ranchers are looking for hardy, moderate-framed cows that will wean a calf every year in those types of feeding programs.

He had a base herd of 180 purebred Charolais cows and felt he could provide just that type of replacement female by crossing the Charolais cows with a long-haired Celtic breed, such as Galloway, Highland, Luing or Welsh Black, to thicken up the hair coat, add winter hardiness and moderate the frame size.

In 2004, he took the plunge using red Galloway bulls on 120 purebred Charolais cows. He was impressed with the results — the cross produced polled, solid tan and solid red offspring.

Since then, he has been breeding the F1 heifers and second calvers to easy-calving F1 (Charolais-Galloway) bulls. Mature F1 cows are bred to easy-calving polled Charolais or the larger-framed F1 bulls.

“In this manner I am producing second-generation crossbreds and a number of quarter-Galloway/three-quarter Charolais females that retain the desired qualities,” Nichols explains. “Rather than adding other breeds, I’m keeping it simple through the use of artificial insemination and natural breeding. Customers can then use the breed of their choice for the third cross to benefit from additional hybrid vigour.”

A portion of the Charolais herd was recently sold to another breeder. However, Nichols has retained a nucleus of about 50 purebred Charolais cows to perpetuate the Charolais genetics and generate new F1 females. The purebred Charolais bull calves are sold to another local breeder.

His new focus is the replacement female market, so most of the male calves are castrated and sold off the cows or backgrounded as market steers. Only select crossbred bulls are retained for his breeding program, though there has been interest from local cattlemen who want crossbred bulls for use on their heifers. After 35 years, it’s a little hard to get right out of the bull business, he says.

Going with Galloway

Nichols didn’t choose red Galloway bulls by chance. He thought back to the University of Alberta’s Kinsella composite breed that had some Galloway and Charolais bloodlines. They performed well, but disappeared during the exotic boom of the 1970s.

There were others crossing Continental breeds with Celtic breeds back then. In B. C., Charles Flick created a Shorthorn-Highland composite he called the Snowlander, bred to suit his conditions in the mountains. Another producer near Edmonton had taken a herd of polled Hereford cows, crossed them to Highland bulls, then bred the F1 females to a Charolais bull. “The calves were nearly as big as their mothers by fall and didn’t have a shaggy

look at all. That was more than 30 years ago and I still remember those good calves — the guy had a program going,” Nichols says.

His first experience using Galloway bulls on Charolais females was back in 1995 when he bred a group of heifers to black and dun Galloway bulls on a semen promotion the association was offering. The resulting calves were just off-white in colour, so he sold the heifers as yearlings to local cattlemen. “When they started telling me about the great calves off those heifers, I realized the cross was something to be considered,” he says. “A couple of years later, I saw the solid red Galloway bulls at Farmfair in Edmonton and knew I had to give them a try.”

The red bulls on the Charolais females produced the polled, solid tan or red replacement heifers he wanted to be able to sell to ranchers, who can then use any breed of bull as a terminal cross for their market calves.

It can be difficult for commercial producers using performance bulls to raise top-end market calves and replacement heifers, he explains. The focus on performance traits, such as rate of gain, for the past quarter century generally came at the expense of calving ease, mothering ability and easy-keeping qualities in the Continental and British breeds.

Performance is still very important for terminal crosses, but it doesn’t do much for replacement females that last a long time, have adequate milk and good fertility without requiring a lot of extra feed, he adds. Research has shown that heifers that have smaller unassisted calves stay in the herd for 12 to 14 years, whereas those that have larger calves and require assistance stay in the herd for only half as long.

Seeing is believing

The shift in his breeding program and away from selling yearling breeding bulls meant he could move his calving season from January to start in May. It was the hardest thing to do that first year, but as a one-man operation, he’d never go back to winter calving. He can now handle 250 cows, whereas he was maxed out calving 150 in his former production system.

He continues to be amazed at what those small cows can do. Even with May-June calving, the calves off the crossbred females are nearly as big as their mothers by September. Calving problems haven’t been an issue and the calves wean off at weights similar to those of the purebred Charolais calves, yet he estimates that it costs about the same to feed five of the smaller crossbred cows as it does to feed four of the larger Charolais cows.

The Peace Country Beef and Forage Association is following his program and plans are in the works to weigh the cows and calves next fall to determine the weaned calf weight as a percentage of the dam’s weight.

The calves are weaned in November or December and fed a silage-based ration in the yard.

Sure, there is a fuel expense to feeding every day, he says, but there’s also the peace of mind knowing that you can get the cattle looked after in any kind of weather. A lifetime of ranching in the Peace Country has brought its fair share of winters when heavy snow falls in

October and stays through until spring. He feels safest when he has his winter supply of silage and bales stored in the yard and looks for other ways to cut costs — such as improving the overall feed efficiency of his herd by reducing cow size and adding winter hardiness.

He uses extended grazing strategies for the cow herd in moderation. During spells of cold weather it is quite noticeable that the F1 cows are out foraging while the purebreds stay huddled in the bush for shelter. Nichols feels the thickened hair coat has really made a difference, but mothering may be part of it as well. Grazing is a learned behaviour, he explains. Calves that graze along with their mothers during inclement weather tend to do so as adults and teach their calves the same. Calves that huddle with their mothers in the bush learn that’s the thing to do.

He has been finishing out a few purebred Charolais, Galloway-Charolais, quarter Galloway, and three-quarter Charolais steers each year for their own use and to sell as 50 and 100-pound freezer packages. The provincially inspected plant gives the carcasses a pencil grade of AA and AAA. The carcass weights of the purebred Charolais and quarter-blood Galloway steers have been similar, while those of the half bloods have been a little lighter. He expected the half-blood steers to be lighter than those with higher percentages of Charolais breeding, but that comes with producing the F1 heifers.

Nichols had hoped to feed out a large group of calves this winter to see how they grade. Unfortunately, drought and the resulting feed shortage meant he had to sell most of the calves off the cows last fall. Even at that, he says the new focus for his breeding program has renewed his optimism about the future of the cattle industry.

October and stays through until spring. He feels safest when he has his winter supply of silage and bales stored in the yard and looks for other ways to cut costs — such as improving the overall feed efficiency of his herd by reducing cow size and adding winter hardiness.

He uses extended grazing strategies for the cow herd in moderation. During spells of cold weather it is quite noticeable that the F1 cows are out foraging while the purebreds stay huddled in the bush for shelter. Nichols feels the thickened hair coat has really made a difference, but mothering may be part of it as well. Grazing is a learned behaviour, he explains. Calves that graze along with their mothers during inclement weather tend to do so as adults and teach their calves the same. Calves that huddle with their mothers in the bush learn that’s the thing to do.

He has been finishing out a few purebred Charolais, Galloway-Charolais, quarter Galloway, and three-quarter Charolais steers each year for their own use and to sell as 50 and 100-pound freezer packages. The provincially inspected plant gives the carcasses a pencil grade of AA and AAA. The carcass weights of the purebred Charolais and quarter-blood Galloway steers have been similar, while those of the half bloods have been a little lighter. He expected the half-blood steers to be lighter than those with higher percentages of Charolais breeding, but that comes with producing the F1 heifers.

Nichols had hoped to feed out a large group of calves this winter to see how they grade. Unfortunately, drought and the resulting feed shortage meant he had to sell most of the calves off the cows last fall. Even at that, he says the new focus for his breeding program has renewed his optimism about the future of the cattle industry.

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