As calving season nears, most producers have a list they carry in their heads of those items they need to have on hand. Common things like colostrum, plastic sleeves, calf-feeding bottles and calf pullers are always top of mind. What about forages? That’s what veterinarian Mary Ellen Hicks says she’s thinking about.
It’s an unexpected answer from an animal-science professor. But, it’s a key element Hicks considers in her role working with students and the beef unit at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College (ABAC), in Tifton, Georgia. Hicks’ husband, Doug, is ABAC beef unit manager. Together, they watch over the herd that provides hands-on education for animal-science courses.
As a professor, Hicks says there aren’t many questions she hasn’t heard when it comes to calving.
“Every cow can be a little different, and they can fool you,” she says. “We teach students that first they have to know what is normal behavior for that animal, and then you start looking at the parameters that help you know she is close to calving. You won’t know what’s abnormal till you know what’s normal. That’s important.”
1. PLAN FOR FORAGES
Because feed is the No. 1 expense in most cow/calf operations, Hicks says improvements in grazing efficiency won’t only save money but will lead to improved overall animal health.
“We work to align calving season to take advantage of high-quality forages here at ABAC,” he says. “If you take care of that, you’re not worrying about bringing feed to the cows.”
Fitting a cow herd to the environment is a little bit like putting together a puzzle. Hicks says the picture is different for every operation. Fall calvers, for example, may have some advantages if they are in fescue-growing regions and can take advantage of good fall forages. Hicks says in their area, spring calving fits the environment better.
“We can’t grow fescue well here. By the fall season, we don’t have the quality we need in forages. Our bahiagrass is playing out. The bermudagrass is going dormant. If you want to have a fall-calving herd here, you have to plan to bring in feed for those cows and watch your stocking density.
“Rather than do that, we take advantage of winter covers like wheat, rye, ryegrass or clovers,” she says. “The key is what can you produce, and when can you produce it? That’s the first thing you should really be considering when you are trying to make your calving operation more efficient.”
2. CONTROL THE SEASON
A controlled breeding season equals a controlled calving season. For some producers, controlled breeding means 60 days, for others, 90. There is no magic number.
“If you think about how calves will market once you wean them, it makes it easier. If you can sell a half or a whole load of calves, and they are all within 25 pounds of each other, that is a market advantage,” she notes.
“The shorter the season, the more strenuous it is, and you have to run a tight ship on management. I tell producers to rely on their marketing plan, forage availability and time resources when planning for a controlled calving season.”
She also believes the cows a producer chooses have to fit their plans and the environment. “If you have a cow that doesn’t play on your team, you have to be willing to let her go. She may be a really good fit to play on someone else’s team. She just isn’t working for you.”
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3. THE 30-DAY PLAN
About a month before calving should begin, Hicks says it’s time to get ready. Calves can start dropping two weeks earlier than the calendar says they should if a calving-ease or low-birthweight bull is used as a sire. At this point, she says make sure calving supplies are on hand and clean. Look at body condition on the cows. Assess forages and nutrition. Consider whether you need to move some cows or heifers closer to the house where you can watch them. Get mentally prepared to look for signs of calving.
“A lot of this is pretty basic,” she says. “Things like ‘Do I have my emergency phone numbers available?’ If I plan to give some vaccines, maybe some scours vaccines if there have been issues in the past, do I have those covered? It’s basic. It’s about being ready.”
4. PHYSICAL SIGNS
Hicks says she and her students have some very specific parameters they watch to help them know when a cow is close to birth. She stresses these are indicators, not guarantees.
“Look at the udders, the vulva and the cow’s behavior. There are a lot of resources on this, but nothing is a guarantee. Some believe once she loses her cervical plug, the cow is going to start calving. I’ve seen that happen a week out. If you watch your cows as they get close to calving, they will teach you what you need to know. Every one can be different, and they will fool you. Different breeds will look different as they get close to calving.”
Once the cow is in labor, Hicks says to keep in mind that every 20 to 30 minutes, some progress should show. If that’s not the case, call your herd veterinarian.
5. NEWBORN BEHAVIOR
The clock is also an important tool after a calf is born. Hicks says once that baby is on the ground, make sure the placenta is off its nose. If it’s not, you have to gently remove it. Within 15 to 30 minutes, that calf should start to attempt standing. It’s OK if he’s wobbly as long as he’s up. Within an hour, he should be nursing.
“I tell my students it’s so important at this point to be patient. Just hang on. We don’t want to jump in there and run the mama off. Note whether the cow is paying attention to her calf, and if that calf is getting up. We try to get a visual identification tag on the calf and weigh it. The tags identify if it’s a bull (left ear) or heifer (right ear). We record who the dam is, weight and sex of the calf. We also like to record color and markings.
“It’s important to add, just because you go to the pasture with the intent of putting in IDs doesn’t mean that’s going to happen. Be patient and read the animal’s behavior. If you go out and the situation doesn’t present itself, you have to go back and do it later.”
It’s easy for a cow to lose body condition after calving, which can make rebreeding challenging. This is where it becomes critical to match the cow’s efficiency to available forages.
“We have a group here of about 30 pairs, and the most acreage they have is in the neighborhood of 16 to 17 acres. We don’t bring a lot of feed to them. Their efficiency matches the forage that’s here. We’re looking at body condition scores on them of 7, and some will be 1,400 pounds.”
Hicks says they move cows into groups where those that are more high maintenance will get more attention, and their body condition can be closely monitored.
“If I put the wrong type of cow in the wrong environment, she starts to lose body condition. She just doesn’t fit. That will work against your goals, so it’s something to be aware of,” says Hicks, adding that at ABAC, they forage-test everything.
“If we harvest forage, we test it. We want to match it to the needs of the right group of cows. They are all at different nutritional levels. You need the information to make the best decision. You need to know the cows. You have to be patient and take the time to learn. Put your puzzle pieces together the right way, and it all just fits.”
Transition to a Controlled Breeding Season:
Cattle producers cannot expect to go from a 365-day calving season to a 60- or 90-day season within one year. More feasible is a progressive three- or four-year plan. Here are some tips from Virginia Cooperative Extension:
1. Look at your existing handling and grazing facilities, and improve or adapt with your end goal in mind. You’ll need a place to separate the bull(s) from the herd and good facilities for preg-checks or AI (artificial insemination) work.
2. Define your best calving season based on forage availability and marketing goals.
3. Sixty days after removing the bull(s) from the herd, preg-check all cows and breeding-age heifers. Cull nongestating, dry cows confirmed open. If she has a nursing calf 5 months or older and was exposed to the bull, cull her after the calf is weaned.
4. Replacement heifers should be bred to a calving-ease bull by AI or natural service 20 to 30 days ahead of the breeding of the mature cow herd.
5. Six months after removal of the bull(s) from the herd, introduce the bull(s) again, targeting (or shifting to) a breeding season of 6 months before being removed again from the herd.
6. Sixty days after bull removal, repeat Step 3.
7. Year two, repeat Steps 4 and 5, except this time, leave the bull in with the cows so the breeding season is 4.5 months long. Repeat Step 3.
8. Year three, repeat Steps 4 and 5, but now remove bull(s) after 3 months’ exposure. Preg-check all females 60 days after bull removal, and cull open females.
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