Greg Melchior doesn’t have time for cows that need a lot of costly inputs or constant attention, even if it is calving season. As long as there’s ice in the arena, the cattleman from North Battleford, Saskatchewan is busy teaching skating. He’s set up his cattle operation to fit his schedule with the minimum of stress for himself, his family and the cows.
Melchior has Speckle Park cattle, Saskatchewan’s own breed. The breed received its distinct breed status just three years ago in 2006, but Melchior grew up with them and has always appreciated their functionality. His father was a good friend of Bill Lamont who created the original Speckle Park cattle starting in the 1950s. “Bill and Dad worked together on the breeding plans and selection,” says Melchior. “They always aimed for balanced, practical cattle with strong straight backs. They took care not to breed out the carcass qualities — Speckle Park beef has exceptional flavor as well as being very tender.”
Apart from their distinctive colour patterns, Speckle Park are quite traditional, even old-fashioned, in their appearance. But they have old-fashioned virtues too. They fit well into Melchior’s old-style, low maintenance system.
“The cattle industry got into more problems and higher costs when everybody started selling their calves in the fall,” he says. “That put a lot of focus on weaning weight.”
Melchior has taken a different route, keeping costs and workload low by grazing as much as possible, a system that fits the Speckle Park. They’re moderate sized, and generally quiet and easy to handle. One of their great strengths is the rarity of calving problems and 75-to 80-pound calves that are very vigorous at birth.
“They’re usually up and sucking right away, within 20 minutes at the most,” says Melchior. “The cows are good mothers and very protective when it comes to keeping calves safe from coyotes and other predators”
Melchior hasn’t had a lot of calving problems beyond minor assists. He recalls a calf that never did thrive and died within its first week, and a 130-pound calf that went late and had to be delivered by C-section. The only other problem he can remember is that once, his father took a cow to the vet because she didn’t seem to be able to deliver her calf, but when he opened the trailer door, cow and calf were fine. Even for a small herd of 80 cows, that’s a pretty good record.
Melchior starts calving the last week of March, with most calves born from April 1 to April 20. He figures a calving barn is an unnecessary luxury for spring calving. Cows and calves go
back out onto stockpiled grass within a few days of calving.
The calves grow well and look well-muscled, even while they’re quite young, he says. Heifers generally weigh about 550 pounds at weaning in the first week of October and steers around 600.
Melchior weans with Quietwean plastic nose flaps that stop the calves from nursing so they can stay with the cows, cutting weaning stress to nothing.
“The cows bawl, but the calves are quite happy and they learn to eat from a bunk with their mothers. One or two manage to flip the Quietweans up and nurse their mothers a bit, but they start eating hay too.”
Once the calves have adapted to eating from a bunk, Melchior removes the Quietweans and pushes the cows out to graze stockpiled grass. He hauls water to troughs made of old tires from mining trucks that let him flip out the ice quite easily. Usually he makes just one trip a day with his 350-gallon tank and lets the cows lick snow for more water, but sometimes he makes a second trip.
Later in the year, he turns the cows into standing corn for a couple of months. Cows do so well on corn he’s planning to increase its acreage next year, so he’ll have enough for the weaned calves.
He backgrounds calves on forage. Last year, he baled his barley, so the calves will get that with some pea hay and a little grain. Melchior makes a point of walking through the calf pens every day to get the calves used to a person on foot.
The calves are sold around May to Highland Feeders in Vegreville. The feedlot pays a five-cent premium over CanFax pricing for the naturally raised calves. Almost all the Speckle Park carcasses grade AAA.
Bill Lamont didn’t consider the colour patterns of Speckle Park a major feature of the cattle. He said the colour was a bonus that made them fun to look at. It helps too that the cattle grow heavy coats in winter, but slick off in summer.
The breed began when Bill’s wife Eileen bought him a heifer with eye-catching speckles from Mary Lindsay. He was a respected cattle breeder and crossed the heifer with his Angus, eventually developing the cattle that became the Speckle Park breed.