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Customize your fall calving system

Clifford Mitchell Published on 30 September 2011
Cattle in pasture

Long before the technological era, customizing something was a way to claim ownership or establish an identity.

Whether it was a custom paint job or initials monogrammed onto a shirt, creative thinking allowed people to express themselves and make everyday tasks easier or more efficient.

Beef producers have long been customizing their operations to reflect their identity. Within each outfit, production systems grow and it makes the operation run a little smoother.

Depending on the region of the country operations are in, fall-calving herds match resources provided in the area or just fit better with Mother Nature.

Certain operations have made the choice to add a fall-calving component to hold onto their investment, giving young cows a chance to become valuable members of the cow herd and take advantage of a good market for those fall calves.

Whatever the reason, this production system is becoming more popular in certain parts of the country.

“The number of fall-calving herds in our area continues to increase,” says David Lalman, extension beef specialist at Oklahoma State University.

“In most years, cows calve in really good body condition score (BCS), milk and breed back like clockwork.”

A benchmark with BCS

Benchmarking the herd is often one of those things people think about from a big-picture standpoint.

Fine-tuning this idea and applying it to things like BCS will help producers know when to apply management and ultimately help make better use of their resources.

“The primary benchmark we need to manage fall-calving herds is BCS. The change in BCS after calving does influence breed-back and milk production, but not as much,” Lalman says.

“Typically, we have to start supplementing fall-calving cows earlier because forage quality is declining when cows are in peak lactation.”

“This is a critical time period,” says Matt Hersom, an extension beef specialist at the University of Florida. “We need to get those cows calved out and ready to re-breed. In most cases, this will require additional nutrients.”

Resources in the field

Every operation has different needs based on resources. Even experienced cattlemen can get confused when it comes to meeting nutritional requirements.

Matching specific needs for cows in specific areas will be as different as the custom paint jobs of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.

“Pasture evaluation is right at the top when we talk about supplementing fall-calving herds,” says Hersom.

“We have to know forage quantity and quality to do a good job. In our area, producers need a positive energy balance to be successful.

Design a nutrition program based on the resources and come up with a scheme to best use those resources.”

“Once those cows calve, they significantly increase their nutrient requirements,” Lalman said. “A gap is created and without supplementation, most cows will experience rapid weight loss. Consequently, there will be a lower pregnancy rate.

“Fall-calving cows in our area need an adequate protein supply. Vitamin A is something else that needs to be provided in the supplement or free-choice mineral.”

Incremental increases in production costs over the past five years have forced even the best managers to tighten budget figures.

Finding nutritional solutions that meet supplement requirements could come with further evaluation of resources.

Eliminating waste and overfeeding and using feed that complements existing forages should help keep these figures in line.

“Not knowing what is needed in the supplements is the most expensive thing for most ranchers,” Lalman explained. “Match those supplements with the forage base to get the most out of them.

It can cost as much as a dollar per head per day if you don’t know what the forage base is. We encourage some sort of free-choice mineral program to help provide trace minerals, which is another thing that is very region-specific.”

“It is very costly to waste resources,” Hersom says. “Anybody can drive by a hay ring and see the amount of waste accepted by most operations.

Whether you make them utilize that hay better or further process it to get them to utilize it better, this amount of waste is unacceptable.

“Make sure she has enough energy and protein first. This time of year she has to be getting enough groceries. Formulate a mineral to meet her needs, then provide her enough for the week.”

Adequate use of forage resources is critical during any management phase, especially with lactating cows and times of limited forage availability.

“Dividing pastures is a low-input way to affect cow performance with better pasture utilization,” Hersom stated. “You have so many acres and pounds of forage. Sometimes you have to make them eat things they wouldn’t normally eat.”

Keep a watchful eye

Observing these fall-calving cows prior to breeding season could also provide confidence or set the wheels of wonder turning. Cattle that have been prepared properly for the next production phase will speak for themselves.

“If most people could sit and observe those cows for an hour twice a day before they put the bulls out, they would see around 5 percent of those cows cycling, which is a good sign,” Lalman says. “Unfortunately, most don’t have that luxury. Successful operations will be able to see estrous activity during daily feeding.”

Throughout the production year, the four-legged critters present unique challenges to keep things thriving in the pasture.

Even though a time period may be considered short and irrelevant by some, profitability, in the long and short term, could be influenced by decisions made getting those cows ready to breed back.

“Those 30 to 60 days prior to re-breeding are really important to the cow herd,” Hersom says. “Operators are setting the stage for two calf crops.

Providing proper nutrition when she’s in peak lactation gets that calf off to a good start and sets up the next calf crop.

“This short time period is one of the greatest opportunities producers have to influence the bottom line because proper management can affect two calf crops; investing resources in the fall-calving herd only works if she comes back pregnant.”

“From calving to re-breeding you can influence two calf crops,” Lalman says. “If you don’t provide proper supplementation, there will be reduced milk production for this calf and fewer calves next fall.

It is almost impossible to gain BCS with lactating cows in the fall with declining forage quality. The goal is to slow down weight loss with extra supplementation.

If you calve those cows at BCS 6.5 and can maintain them only losing 20 pounds per month, that will get her through the winter.”  end_mark

PHOTO:

TOP: Fall calvers have significant nutritional requirements after calving, meaning some supplements will be necessary to prevent weight loss. Staff Photo

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