Al Fenton of Fenton Herefords at Irma, Alta., has raised thousands of replacement heifers and has a pretty good idea about how to feed and grow them into cows.
“We use fenceline weaning, which is low stress. We wean in a 10-acre area with cows on one side and calves on the other. It’s a long hot-wire fenceline, where the cows and calves can pair up along the fence. Often they lie down across the fence from one another and the calves settle in pretty well,” he says.
“If you have a long enough fence, they aren’t walking as much. There is room for pairs to come together at the fence when they want to. We also put a couple old granny cows with the weaning heifers to help keep them calm,” says Fenton.
Calves take their behavioural clues from their mothers or the adults around them. If the cows stay calm, the calves don’t spook and run as readily when they see people. The granny cows act as a role model to provide comfort and security. “If something scares them a little and the cows don’t spook, the calves learn it’s not that scary, and they won’t run. This settles them a little quicker,” he says.
“Another thing that helps calves at weaning is to feed the cows and calves whatever you’ll be feeding the heifers, and feed that ration for a week before weaning. The calves start eating that feed and know what it is, and their gut adjusts to it. This makes a better transition than if they have to go through an abrupt change of feed. Once you shut off the milk, stress comes from not only the weaning but also the nutritional aspect. If they are already accustomed to that feed, it makes a difference,” he explains.
“If you have the space to feed in bunks so there is plenty of room and not a lot of competition, you can leave all your heifers together. If you have to feed in a smaller area where there’s more competition, divide them into groups according to weight. Feed the lighter end together as a group, and the middle and the bigger end as separate groups. I think they winter a lot better that way. The smaller calves don’t have to compete with the larger ones,” says Fenton.
“We are getting set up to winter on standing corn. We already winter pregnant heifers that way, and they do well with no competition for feed. We have native grass pastures for them in the spring. We process them before they go, so they have all their shots. If they are on native grass for a certain length of time before we spread them out in breeding pastures with bulls, they don’t seem to have the weight loss like they would if they were just coming out of the feedyard for breeding,” he explains.
They may have a little weight loss just because of the difference in nutrition but it is temporary and doesn’t line up with their first cycle when you are turning bulls out. “They are ready to go when we sort them and then there’s not a lot of change involved and the results are better,” he says.
“Our bred heifers winter on standing corn from early November until April 1 and start calving April 15. There is no competition for feed and they do well. We give them Ivermec in the fall, and also use an oral dewormer, and notice quite a difference in the heifers in how they do,” Fenton says.
“We also use a mineral pack. We don’t force-feed them mineral by putting it in feed because we don’t bunk feed. The corn they are eating is tested, so we know what our nutrients and calcium need to be. We keep the mineral pack fresh at the water bowls where the heifers have to walk by every day. They are used to going in there and eating a couple ounces a day of the mineral. Since there is no competition for feed, they trail in there a few at a time and they all eat some. If the mineral is balanced for what they need, this helps with fault-free calving in the spring,” he says.
He likes to see pregnant heifers do a fair amount of walking during winter. “We start them out grazing the standing corn fairly close to water, then toward spring a lot of the heifers are walking a half mile to water. This strengthens them and gets them in shape, and they calve a lot easier. They don’t grow as big a calf if they are fit rather than fat. Walking makes a difference,” Fenton says. When pregnant heifers have to travel and stay in shape, he feels there is also less incidence of abortion.
“I learned the benefits of exercise when I was 16, when we used to make heifers walk across the valley and come into the ranch for water. Those heifers calved without help, whereas when we penned them in winter and they had all the feed they needed and seldom had to walk, this could increase calf size by about 10 pounds and they didn’t calve as easily. Ten extra pounds of calf, in a heifer that is not in shape makes a considerable difference. A heifer that’s in shape will have no trouble giving birth to that calf and it won’t stress her as much or as long,” he says.
She doesn’t get as tired, and if she’s not worn out she’ll be a better mother. She’ll get up quicker and turn around and be more interested in that calf and start licking it and her actions will stimulate the calf to get up quicker and find the udder.
When wintering and feeding heifers, if some of them aren’t doing as well, pull them out of that group and feed them a different way. “You could still calve them out, but don’t keep them. There may be a variety of reasons holding them back, but don’t make excuses. If you bring them in and put them on feed and they suddenly start doing really well, that doesn’t give you a reason to keep them. They will have calves that also need extra help to do the job. Know your environment and adapt your feed source and your culling on that same concept. The way you feed heifers/cows will allow you to find out if they are suitable for your ranch and your environment.”
Condition of the heifers shows you if your nutrition is good enough. “If there’s a large number of heifers falling off and not doing well, readjust your feeding program in the fall before you get into winter. You don’t want to add feed to heifers in the last part of pregnancy. Body condition should stay constant through the last 60 days. If you bring them up in condition a little in the fall to get them where you want them, that’s fine, but don’t be advancing their condition during the last 60 days of gestation or they will build bigger calves. Find their nutritional balance early, and make sure it’s good enough to keep them there during the last 60 days for best calving results,” he explains.