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Zero tolerance for calving trouble

Monica Gokey for Progressive Cattleman Published on 22 December 2017
Calving in Australia

When Idaho-based grazing consultant Jim Gerrish talks about his time spent in Australia, one of the biggest cross-cultural differences he highlights is the Australian producers’ approach to calving trouble.

“You know what calving assistance looks like in Australia?” he’ll ask an audience. People stare back at him blankly.

Gerrish moves his fingers into the shape of a gun and points it at the floor and says, “POW! That’s calving assistance.”

The culture of low-intervention stockmanship stems from the rugged reality of ranching in Australia’s remote outback. And Jim Gerrish is among a growing tribe of people who’ve gleaned wisdom from our neighbors halfway around the world.

Former Australian livestock producer and industry expert Grahame Rees helps get at the why of their culture. It’s rooted in necessity.

“In much of Australia, you have these vast, large cattle stations,” Rees explains. “Some run 30,000 to 40,000 head of cattle.” Any given cow at those remote stations might only see their producer a handful of times per year, he adds. And that’s part of why there’s no room for calving trouble – or any infirmity, for that matter. “In those larger areas,” he says, “a producer’s probably never going to see an animal with a calving problem anyway.”

Not offering calving assistance has given those large cattle stations a major advantage over time: Their cows no longer need calving assistance. Problematic traits related to calving are largely weeded out.

When his work in the livestock industry brought Rees to the U.S., he noticed several differences in how beef producers do business. One, American ranches have access to cheaper labor than they do in Australia, he says.

Two, people still value an old-fashioned ride-the-range culture, which may be rich in heritage but long on hours and time. And three, American producers are generally more prepared to doctor animals.

“We don’t have cowboys (or jackaroos) that go out with a rope,” he laughs. “No one here would know how to rope a cow … because we just don’t treat them.”

Calling a veterinarian is a significant expense in Australia, Rees adds. And it’s simply not a reality at many of the more remote cattle stations.

Rees recalls Americans asking him what Australian producers do when cows get sick. “They don’t get sick,” he’d reply. “But what if they do?” Americans ask, and Rees says, “Then they die.”

By being hard on selection, Australian producers ensure they have animals that can survive in a demanding environment. At face value it may seem harsh but, over time, being “hands off” with calving and other sickness has ramifications that echo all the way to the bank.

Being profit-driven is ingrained in Australian producers. Jim Gerrish adds some historical context to the story.

“Forty years ago, if slaughter cattle in the U.S. were going for 40 to 45 cents per pound, the price on the world market was probably half that,” Gerrish says. Beef-producing countries like Australia and New Zealand, and those in South America, were growing their cattle industries at a time when prices were comparatively low.

“These countries grew up lean and mean,” he adds. “Those producers had to make a living at prices half of what U.S. producers were making.”

In today’s market, the price of beef is similar across continents and countries. And the global economy is more connected than ever. That has largely driven beef prices down – a big “ouch” for U.S. producers. But cattle industries like Australia’s are seeing higher returns than ever. That has forward-thinking beef producers like Jim Gerrish looking to Australia to see exactly why they’re so profitable.

Labor efficiency is one thing Australian producers do really well, Gerrish offers. “If you were to ask the state cow-calf extension specialists how many cows a mom-and-pop operation, or one full-time employee, should be able to take care of, you’ll probably get an answer like 300 to 500,” he explains.

“In Australia, the national standard is 1,500 cows per employee,” Gerrish says. “At the more efficient and profitable ranches, it’s 3,000 cows per employee.”

The idea of treating one of those 3,000 cows by helping it calve simply isn’t a good use of time, nor is it good business. “I think zero tolerance for infirmity is a good business practice over here,” Gerrish says, alluding to the learning opportunity for American producers.

“Most of the illnesses and problems we see over here are the result of management being imposed,” he says. In other words, ranchers unwittingly select for infirmity, like calving trouble, when they continue to treat it.

Gerrish points out there’s usually a genetic component to infirmity.

On the ground, producers can lower their rates of calving assistance in two ways: by culling problematic cows and choosing bulls wisely. “If you work on the genetics and focus on genetically functional animals, there are so few problems,” Gerrish says.

For Gerrish, a tolerable level of calving difficulty is something like 1 percent in a herd of mature cows and maybe 3 percent in first-calf heifers. He notes Australia’s zero tolerance attitude for calving trouble extends to heifers, too.

The average rate of calving assistance among producers in the U.S. is between 4 and 5 percent, according to 2009 data from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, an agency under the wings of the USDA. Among first-calf heifers, it’s 11.6 percent, according to the same data.

Providing calving assistance costs time. Time costs money. Veterinarians cost money. The way forward should be black and white: Don’t tolerate calving trouble, and eventually you won’t have it. But Gerrish says the cultural differences run deeper than that.

“Most U.S. cattle producers view a cow as a cow – a sentient being. And that’s why we tend to pay a little more attention to them as individuals,” Gerrish says. “In Australia, they’re pretty well a production unit.” Gerrish is quick to point out this mindset isn’t easy for everyone to adopt.

He describes a client who decided to treat a calf with a broken leg. By the time veterinary expenses were tallied, alongside the labor cost of having someone feed the calf in a pen with its mom, the producer was into it $2,500. If the calf sold for $800, the rancher was still staring down a $1,700 loss. “You can’t do that very many times in a business and come out on top,” Gerrish points out.

He asked the rancher how he felt about his decision after reviewing the numbers. Despite the huge loss, the rancher told Gerrish he felt “good” about it (ethically, if not financially).

Embracing more profit-driven management tactics like zero tolerance for calving trouble or infirmity might be a slow learning curve for some. But at a time when many American beef producers are struggling to stay afloat, it couldn’t hurt to look Down Under for inspiration from a cattle culture that doesn’t stand for excessive bites to the bottom line.  end mark

PHOTO: Calving assistance in Australia is well below the American average due in part to the vastness of the range. Photo by Dawn Gerrish, American GrazingLands Services Inc.

Monica Gokey is a freelance writer based in Idaho. Email Monica Gokey