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Calving is just one benefit with cow-calf confinement barns

Laura Handke for Progressive Cattleman Published on 21 December 2018
Accu-Steel hoop barn provides housing for 400 cow calf pairs

In the fertile, black soil of Iowa, pastureland sells for more than $5,000 an acre, and rent isn’t much more affordable.

“Around here [Linden, Iowa], rent is anywhere from 110 to 120 dollars an acre. We stock at around 3 acres per pair – that’s 340 dollars for three months of the year,” says Chad Wilkerson, owner of Wilkerson Farms.

High prices and the ambition to expand their herd drove Chad and his wife, Amy, to think outside the box. As longtime hog producers, the Wilkerson family put their heads together, pulling from their confinement operation experience what could be applied to cow-calf management.

Researching housing types, one open house led to many open houses, and the next years were spent looking at cash flows and talking to the bank. Four years after attending their first open house, the Wilkersons invested in their first building and haven’t looked back.

“That first calving season, Amy and I fell in love [with raising cattle under a roof]. It was so much easier to manage those cows in every aspect: health, nutrition, calving. We have never doubted our decision,” Wilkerson shares.

Managing for success

Located 40 miles west of Des Moines, Iowa, pasture availability is as limiting as the high prices land garners. There is no pasture to be had.

“My footprint for 400 head of cattle is 4 acres. Our cows stay in the hoop building 365 days a year,” says Wilkerson. “Bringing the cattle in has been better for them; they are always dry and out of the elements.”

Today, the operation utilizes two barns. Measuring 46 feet by 320 feet, the south barn is equipped with 40-foot pens, while the north barn measures 60 feet by 400 feet, holding 20 calving pens and the working facility. Both barns run east to west to ventilate naturally.

Stocking rates for the barns are based on bunk space, not width, allowing 2 feet of space for each 1,200-pound cow, increasing space to as much as 4 feet per cow for donors weighing upward of 2,000 pounds.

Calves are creep fed from day oneBiosecurity is also an important management tool Wilkerson says the operation takes very seriously in maintaining herd health. “If you were to come visit, you are going to park about 300 feet away from the barns, at my shop; you’re going to walk into the shop, and you’re going to put on plastic boots to walk into one of our barns,” he says.

Leveraging professional resources

Finding a good large-animal vet and nutritionist are non-negotiable when finding success in a cow-calf confinement operation, Wilkerson shares.

“I don’t have time to sit and read about cow health issues, so I rely on (the vet). You need a strong relationship with your vet to make a confinement cow-calf operation work.”

The farms’ successful embryo transfer (ET) program is confirmation of the success these relationships can provide and are echoed by the service professionals the Wilkersons work closely with.

“As an embryo transfer practitioner, we live and breathe by pregnancy rates, but we don’t know how that embryo or donor cow was handled before it made it to the farm. We have to convey best practices and try to take more client [donor embryos arriving at Wilkerson Farms] variability out each year,” says Travis Hargens, an AMVC veterinarian who completes the majority of Wilkerson Farms’ embryo transfer work. “To do that, we must have good open conversation and a relationship between all of us.”

During the ET process, Hargens stresses cow management.

“We dim the lights, sterilize and make sure there is no movement by the cow’s head,” says Hargens, who also credits conception success to working with the same skilled veterinary technician during all transfers and harvests.

By using Charolais bulls, resulting in smokey-colored calves

The operation owns all of the single-sourced recipient cows the donor embryos are transferred into, typically utilizing around 65 percent as recipients. For the remaining 35 percent of their cows, and as coverage for cows that do not settle, Charolais bulls are used.

“Angus is probably 90 percent of our [ET] business. We went the Charolais route because we know as soon as we see a hoof whether the calf is an embryo or from a bull,” says Wilkerson.

Calving under roof

The “snake in gestation” calving management design allows for cows to be grouped and managed for their next ET based on their calving dates.

“We have eight pens of 20 cows in each barn. We start with the cows that are calving the latest, say April, on the east end of our south barn; as they come back to pen one, those cows are due earlier, say February, and so on. As you come back to pen one in the north barn, those are the cows that will calve the earliest,” says Wilkerson.

“We usually designate three calving pens; once they calve, we let the cow have about 20 minutes with the calf and then bring them up to one of those calving pens, process that calf with all of the upfront shots we give and then give the pair 48 hours by themselves. We have several pens we have outfitted with plastic so the cows can’t see the other calves; we want to make sure that cow has claimed her calf. We want to see that calf suck at least three times in those 48 hours before she returns to the rest of the cows in her group.”

The Wilkersons scrape and bed every day when there are calves in the barn to keep the pack dry and teats and navels clean.

Outside of live, healthy calves, the biggest concern the farm has is getting those cows bred back.

“Once the last cow in a pen has calved, the clock starts: At 30 days they get their pre-breeding shot, at 60 days they get a CIDR, and at 77 days they are getting an embryo,” he says. “The best management tool we have is closing up our open days. We can bring a cow forward about 14 to 15 days every year.”

Wilkerson’s confinement management system provided a 94 percent calf crop in 2018 – that’s including all ETs, natural coverage and live, weaned calves – a success by any operation’s standards.  end mark

PHOTO 1: Accu-Steel covered hoop barn buildings provide housing for 400 cow-calf pairs on Wilkersons’ Iowa farm.

PHOTO 2: Calves are creep fed from day one to ensure optimal growth. 

PHOTO 3: By using Charolais bulls, resulting in smoky-colored calves, Wilkerson can easily distinguish between calves sired by embryo transfer and the farm’s bulls. Photos by Chad Wilkerson.

Laura Handke is a freelance writer based in Kansas.

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