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Heifers by the hundreds

Primrose Livestock has set up a heifer station in Saskatchewan

cattle handling facility

Calving out 900 heifers is demanding work at the best of times. Factor in a nasty Saskatchewan winter without so much as a hint of a southern Alberta chinook to melt the mountains of snow in 2014, and it’s a remarkable feat for an operation in its first production cycle.

Kyle Primrose, who hails from the company’s home base at Lethbridge, Alta., hopes he’s seen the worst of Saskatchewan winters since moving to Outlook two years ago to manage Primrose Livestock’s bred heifer operation.

A small feedlot near irrigated land they farm near Outlook was redesigned and expanded to become a dedicated facility for wintering and calving out first- and second-calf heifers. It’s the first of its kind for the family business that runs cow herds, feeder and finishing feedlots, pastures and cropping operations at several locations in Saskatchewan and Alberta alongside its established order-buying services with assembly yards in both provinces.

Having a feedlot facility with lots of shelter and a well-equipped calving barn is an advantage when calving large groups of heifers in the middle of winter. However, keeping 900 young calves healthy from February to turnout proved more challenging than calving them out, says Primrose, who recently hosted groups from the Western Canadian Feedlot Management School and the University of Saskatchewan.

This year, they will start calving 450 Angus heifers at the feedlot in mid-March and 800 Angus second-calvers on adjacent pasture in April. After weaning, the older group will graduate to mature herds at other locations to make way for a new group of incoming bred heifers this fall.

Replacement heifers selected from their own herd along with the best black heifers purchased from Angus herds in southern Saskatchewan are developed, bred and pastured at another location.

Primrose Livestock runs a strict culling program. Heifers go through three cuts just to make it into the replacement heifer group and another after breeding. After that, they cull through the whole herd after calving and again after preg-checking.

Last year they switched things up a bit by breeding about 40 per cent of their mature Angus cows to Charolais bulls to produce the silver calves some buyers favour. Traditionally, they used Angus bulls exclusively, until the Angus-Charolais crossbreeding program was proven out in one of their Alberta herds. They’ve pushed the calving start date for the Saskatchewan cows bred Charolais into May in hopes of hitting better weather should extra assistance be needed.

Primrose figures 900 bred heifers is a manageable maximum at any one time for a crew of five which includes health technician Vicki Foresberg, feed man and farming expert Jake Wall, himself and his parents.

This winter he’s been taking calls daily from laid-off oil patch workers looking for jobs, but he figures it would be a mistake to expand their numbers based on this new labour pool as most of them will be gone in a flash as soon as the oil industry turns around. So they are looking to other sources for their labour needs as they continue with their slow expansion.

Calving time

The bred heifers receive a ration of barley grain, protein supplement, corn silage, barley silage and hay fed out at 45 to 55 pounds per head per day. The second-calvers receive 60 to 65 pounds per head per day of the same ration with straw added and are let out into the adjacent field for daily exercise as weather permits.

They breed and feed to target 80- to 90-pound calves from the cows and 70- to 85-pound calves from the heifers. Birthweight doesn’t matter as much as the shape of the calf, which goes back to the conformation of the bulls. Taking care to select smooth-shouldered heifer bulls saves a lot of grief dealing with calving problems.

They check and assist heifers that don’t calve on their own within about two hours of the water bag appearing so that the flow through the 21-pen calving barn doesn’t get backed up.

They’re equipped to deal with most calving difficulties, but know their limitations and have established a good working relationship with an independent local veterinarian who shows up quickly when needed.

"its all about efficiency and speed." – Kyle Primrose.
"its all about efficiency and speed." – Kyle Primrose. photo: Supplied

Primrose is proud to say they didn’t need a single caesarian last year although they had some strange deliveries, including conjoined twins.

Calving lubricant; the injectable tranquilizer, Atravet; and their Pneu-Dart system for administering it saved the day more than once. They slather the lubricant around the calf’s head as usual and mix some with water to pump around the body. Atravet does wonders to calm cantankerous heifers that won’t have anything to do with people or headgates, and for those that go into attack mode after the calf is born. By the time the sedative wears off, the pair has mothered up nicely. There’s no evidence they can see that the medication causes grogginess in the calves.

Calves that haven’t nursed on their own within two hours are fed a half dose of commercial colostrum. They’ve found a full bag is too filling and reduces a calf’s motivation to try to suck on its own for the next few hours.

After 12 hours to mother up, and oftentimes sooner if the space is needed, each calf is tagged with a numbered dangle tag the same colour as the dam’s and a radio frequency identification (RFID) button. Bull calves are castrated by banding, and all calves receive a dose of the intranasal vaccine Inforce 3 to protect against pneumonia.

Pairs are moved to a nursery pen beside the barn, which on the busiest calving days can empty and refill two or three times. The most born in a day was 48 with about 20 being run of the mill.

From there it’s on to new pens that haven’t been used for winter feeding. Thirty-five lightweight metal calving shelters were built so that they can be easily moved around as needed. To avoid disease buildup the shelters and bedding are removed as each group of calves reaches the one-month mark. It’s not a big deal to set shelters out again if a storm or cold weather is expected.

Scours was the biggest health problem in the heifer group. Primrose’s protocol is to treat calves at the first sign of scours or pneumonia with scour boluses, and an injectable long-acting antimicrobial. There’s no sense waiting to see if the calf can fight it off on its own when timely treatment can make the difference between a dead calf and a calf on the mend at the next check.

Last year, the early treatment protocol resulted in about 90 per cent of the feedlot-born calves being treated before all was said and done. Calf death loss was 10 per cent, which was disheartening, but has to be kept in perspective considering death losses experienced when late-spring storms hit cows calving on pasture.

Scours wasn’t an issue in the older group that calved on pasture, but that’s not an option for their heifer program. Supervising so many first-calvers in a pasture setting simply isn’t feasible.

Calving the heifers early also gives them the time they need to return to estrus and rebreed on schedule with the older group. Only three per cent of the 900 heifers were open last fall. The technician who did the preg checking by ultrasound told them that, on average, 10 to 18 per cent of first-calf heifers come up open. Another reason for the exceptional pregnancy rate is that they don’t scrimp on bull power. They aim for a ratio of one bull for 20 females in all of their herds.

Health is a priority

Primrose, a graduate from the agriculture sciences course majoring in animal science at Lethbridge College, has been working full time in the family business for seven years and takes pride in setting the bar high for the health program regardless of market prices.

In addition to annual vaccinations with BoviShield Gold and boosters as required for the heifers to protect against breeding diseases, the bred heifer group receives Scour Bos 9 and a MU-SE booster about a month before calving. MU-SE is a vitamin E-selenium injectable given annually to the breeding herd. A loose mineral supplement with Rumensin (to prevent coccidiosis) is provided at salting stations throughout their pastures.

Calves born on pasture are tagged, castrated and vaccinated with an eight-way and Bovi-Shield One Shot at roundup in mid- to late June. Those born in the feedlot are on the same vaccination program given before turnout. Branding is done after roundup in the processing barn chute where they’ve rigged up a vacuum system attached to the branding iron that exhausts smoke directly out of the building.

Health problems on pasture are mainly footrot and eye conditions, for which the Pneu-Dart has been indispensable. It causes less stress on the animal and is easier on the budget than hiring riders to rope and treat cattle on so many pastures. With the Pneu-Dart, any one of them can treat cattle on the spot quickly and effectively up to 30 yards away. Their death loss on pasture has dropped from around five per cent to 2.5 per cent since they started using the Pneu-Dart.

They use the medium-range air-pump Pneu-Dart set to treat animals from two to 30 yards away. The kit costs about $500 and includes practice darts to get started. The single-use darts that cost US$12 to $20 per pack of five depending on the size, can be filled with the medication of your choice. The gel collar that holds the dart in the neck muscle slowly melts until the empty dart falls to the ground. It and the needle are made from a refined biodegradable plastic so there’s no need to run around picking them up.

The only time it’s used in the feedlot is for giving Atravet to ornery heifers at calving. For everything else, they run the animals through the chute where there are RFID scanning bars on each side of the headgate and a computerized chute-side system to record treatments given to each animal.

“It’s all about efficiency and speed. It’s not always big changes that make the most difference. Small, quick changes can add up to make a big difference,” says Primrose.

Topping his list of concerns for their operation, and the Canadian industry, are drought, a major disease outbreak and the Americans buying up the Canadian cattle herd at a 25 per cent discount given the way the Canadian dollar is moving.

Their software tracks feed inventory

One of the greatest assets for keeping all of Primrose Livestock’s cattle organized is a computer program they’ve developed that tracks and monitors feed consumption and feed supplies.

Rations for each pen are entered into the program and manually updated each time the ration is changed. Total feed inventories are then automatically adjusted as the ingredients are fed out each day. If the commodity-check column in the feed sheet displays as “incorrect” for any ingredient, the feed man knows there’s a problem and corrects it right away. The errors are generally due to more or less of an ingredient being doled out than the program calls for, either in error or because there are fewer or more animals in the pen than were expected. Sometimes it’s just a number that was entered in error.

At the Outlook, Sask. office daily feed and inventory records are backed up and sent to the company server in Lethbridge where they are backed up again.

Feed summaries and inventory records are closed out at the end of every month and reviewed by the accountant so glitches can be ironed out right away.

Primrose Livestock is offering this program to producers and post- secondary schools at no cost. “Everyone is in this industry together and we want everyone to do well,” says Kyle Primrose, manager of the Outlook yard.

For more information about the program contact Kyle at 306-867-3012 — after calving season!

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