Most cattle producers cite reduced labour and input costs, milder weather, fewer birth problems and better calf health as the main reasons for choosing to calve at pasture in the spring.
Karmen and Jason McNabb calve 400 Hereford/Red Angus-cross cows beginning the third week of April on a 60-acre native pasture in the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan. The McNabbs says their goal is to have 95 per cent live calves on the ground and most years they meet that goal. “The lower labour requirement and fewer facilities needed make it worthwhile,” says Karmen. “We do not have hired help and are also seeding some land in the spring so it’s important the cows can (calve) on their own.”
Calving in May generally means that producers don’t have to worry about calves chilling or freezing their ears. It’s a lot less stress and strain on the producer too. “When I was calving in January I was a walking zombie,” says Myna Cryderman, a cattle producer near Boissevain, Man. who switched to spring calving many years ago. “Now it’s a joy to go out and see there’s a new baby calf and it seems more natural. Animals are supposed to calve in May/June when the weather is good. Whenever you go against nature it costs you a lot in time, money and work.”
You are also matching the highest nutritional needs of the lactating cows to peak forage production, says Cryderman. “You are matching their nutritive needs to when the land is producing the most forage so you’re not feeding them as much hay, which costs money to harvest,” she says. “You’re cutting your cost down on feed and they are also healthier.”
As animals are spread farther apart they tend to have less contagious diseases. “A lot of diseases tend to be diseases of confinement,” says Wayne Tomlinson, extension veterinarian for Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. “As we crowd animals together, we get more pneumonia and scours.”
Aaron Ivey, a producer from Ituna, Sask., has rarely had to treat his calves for any sickness for over a decade, since he set up his pasture calving system. “Overall you get a more vigorous calf and he kind of hits the ground running,” he says.
Advantages of pasture calving definitely include lower costs. “We believe that there has been an economic advantage,” says Lawrence and Christine Amon of Poplar Bluff Ranch, northwest of Shaunavon, Saskatchewan, who have been pasture calving for 15 years. “We have less corral cleaning expenses, less feeding and bedding expenses, less doctoring expenses, the calves are not set back from the cold or germs when they are born, the cows are in good shape, and our calves are not many pounds lighter in the fall compared to some that calve earlier.”
Cows that calve at pasture also benefit from better nutrition that leads to improved rebreeding. “Cows cycle and rebreed better if they are on a rising plane of nutrition,” says Tomlinson. “If you are calving in May and June and you turn them out onto nice green pasture, they are getting better nutrition, so they often will rebreed quite nicely through that system.”
One of the biggest things about calving in the field is to be as prepared as you would be if you were calving in the corral. “Assume all the problems that you have in winter calving can happen on pasture,” says Tomlinson. “It’s more natural to calve in the spring and things tend to roll along a lot nicer but you can still get trouble. You’ll need a way to catch the cow and get her in if she doesn’t accept her calf or she’s having trouble calving. It’s good to be prepared to deal with that and also consider how you will deal with ear tagging, castration, dehorning and those sort of things. With open wounds you need to be aware that there are flies out there at that time of year that can cause you some issues too.”
It’s important to realize, though, that calving at pasture isn’t just plunking the cows out in a field and letting nature take its course; it’s about developing a whole grazing and production system of which calving at pasture is a part.
“You can’t say, well I’ll just change it to pasture calving now and everything else will be the same, you have to ask, is it going to fit into a system that you’re using,” says Ivey. “For us pasture calving is part of our whole system and part of how we manage and graze and everything else.”