Our Calving Check List
Posted By: Jesse Williams
I am counting down the days until our cows are supposed to start calving- and I am pumped!! Is there any better time of the year when new calves are hitting the ground? I can't think of one. And because I like to be (or attempt to be) organized, I have been preparing for this season almost since last calving season ended. To make things a bit easier I developed a check list of items I like to have on hand in case we need to intervene. It isn't very often we need to, but I would rather be prepared and know what tools I have to work with rather than be scurrying around looking for something I haven't seen since last year. There are probably a lot more items I could add but I think this is a great list for beginners. Add as you go!
Our Calving Check List
Did I forget something? Feel free to comment with your suggestions!
Posted By: Jesse Williams
If you hadn't already noticed from my blog post called Why we're unrolling bales instead of jumping on the bale grazing band wagon, I am a bit of an opinionated person. I also like to call people out when I disagree with what they're saying (and yes that gets me in trouble a lot!).
Shaming ranchers who calve in the winter has been on my mind for a long time- literally years. And I am not talking about the public here. Let's get this straight- I am calling out RANCHERS who are ragging on their FELLOW RANCHERS, peers and friends for exercising their right to pick a breeding season. Yes, you may very well be one of them. And if you are, keep reading and stop rolling your eyes (...please!).
So what am I talking about exactly? Here are a few things I have heard with my own ears probably over 50 times in the last year in person, on social media and even at industry events...
"The only natural way to calve a cow is on grass. Like God intended."
"Calving in the winter is just making work for yourself."
"My cows don't need intervention because they calve on grass.
"I can wean the same number of pounds if not more than you and I calve on grass."
And the list literally goes on...
What is a 'natural' breeding season for a cow?
Archaeological estimates place the domestication of cattle to have occurred approximately 10,500 years ago, in two distinct domestication processes in the Middle East/ Europe and in India. Now I am no archeologist, however I do know that a LOT can happen in 10,500 years, particularly in genetics with outcrosses, mutations, line breeding, genetic selection and the technological advances of artificial insemination, genetic testing and freezing embryos. We have been breeding these animals based on our desires for thousands of years, whether our needs were shifted towards meat production, dairy production, livestock husbandry, or in recent years for things such as show quality or novelty items. Therefore, in my opinion, no matter what the original Bos genus member used as a 'natural' breeding and calving season, there is simply no way we can decide what 'natural' or 'normal' is anymore. Normal for a dairy cow could literally be any time of the year, depending on where it falls in the management cycle of the farmer. There are simply no cattle alive today that have been untouched by the domestication of humans in order to determine what may have been a 'natural' breeding season 10, 500 years ago.
The point I am trying to make is, even if you believe that calving on grass in June is the best time for YOUR operation, it may NOT be the best time for other operations and it certainly cannot be generalized as 'normal' or 'natural'. So PLEASE, I am begging you, STOP SAYING THAT!!
So why WOULD you want to calve in the winter?
By the very definition of winter, it encompasses December, January and February. Now most ranchers would agree winter in Alberta lasts much longer than that, so lets even lump March in there, as the March calvers get just as much flack (or more!) than the January guys. And I am sad to say that I am one of the producers catching the snide comments.
There is an infinite list of reasons why you may choose (because remember, it is YOUR choice) to calve in these 4 coldest months, just as their is an infinite list for calving in the other 8 months of the year. But here is why WE choose to calve in 'winter' and are in fact moving our calving date even deeper into winter next year. I can only speak for myself, so that is exactly what I am doing...
1. The number one reason we want to calve in March (the end of March this year, hopefully the beginning of March next year) is for convenience. Yes, I said it- convenience. While this is usually what I hear from the spring calvers, it is truly a convenient time of year for us. Why? Because March is a quiet time of year- there is no seeding that needs to get done, no fence fixing and no camping trips or family reunions planned. It is also the last quiet month before my schedule explodes with my off farm job as an Ag Fieldman and my hub's water well drilling company can really get going.
And yes, I realize this is completely serving our own needs. But I don't have cattle to make them feel fluffy and happy (although it's a bonus if I do!). I own cattle to earn a living. Plain and simple, they are a business. The animal welfare that goes along with owning cattle is part of the job- a responsibility that we take seriously- but not the reason we own them.
2. The second reason we chose March is because we wanted to have flexibility in our sale dates (we currently sell at auction, typically the end of October) without sacrificing significant pounds, as that is what we are paid by. This way we can deliver high 5 to low 6 weight calves to the auction mart without pounding the grain to them (which would be an added expense).
3. We are set up for it. And that is because we chose to be. We built a barn that is designed to house pairs if there is a cold night or blizzard and is equipped with a maternity pen when we need to assist a cow with a calf she couldn't deliver on her own. Yes this all came at a cost, but if you tell me that just because your herd calves in the summer months it means you'll never need to pull a calf, I'll call you an out right liar. In my opninion, the cost of a barn and maternity pen is peanuts to the number of calves we can save if we didn't have the facilities and the pounds we can put on our calves before fall sale. Not to mention that our barn is multi-purpose as it isn't only used at calving time.
We don't pull a lot of calves. In fact, it is rare. But that has nothing to do with our breeding season, like some ranchers prefer to think. It has everything to do with our sire and dam selection and nutritional program. Of course, there is and always will be those instances you couldn't select out of- like a heifer whose hips just simply cannot deliver a calf on her own. Or a first time mother who doesn't claim her calf. There are always time when ranchers need to intervene, regardless of the breeding season. Even an angus cow bred to a small birth weight bull can have complications- regardless of the time of year. And I would argue strongly that our system allows us to catch those moments early and more often than a summer calver. I would also like to add that it brings my husband and I great joy and a sense of accomplishment when we aid a mother cow with a successful delivery that she couldn't have done healthily on her own. It is our opinion, that as animal caretakers, it is our responsibility to give our animals the best care we can.
We have installed calving cameras in our calving pasture and corrals that allow us to see 360 degrees and has extensive zooming capabilities. They also stream live to our computers, cell phones and tablets. This allows us to always have a set of eyes (or in our case, usually a minimum of 3 sets of eyes, up to 10!) on our cows that are near their due date. We are then able to identify problems early, monitor progess and know when to intervene (although it is rare that we have to). And the cost? Recovered in the first year we installed the system. It cost us $3500- which was the price of just over 2 calves this fall. And I can promise you it saved more than 2 calves.
You cannot tell me that a summer calver who allows his cows to graze on a section of land checks his entire herd in person a minimum of every 3 hours with addition digital supervision almost 24/7. I would then argue that we have a better probability of calving success when problems occur (and they ALWAYS will, no matter what breed, what sire or what time of year you calve).
Those summer calvers that claim they never have to pull a calf- I call BULLSHIT! There are probably instances where you should have intervened, but didn't because you didn't even know there was a problem. Maybe the cow delivered that calf, but she then had a longer recovery period, less or poorer quality colostrum, and that calf may have been weaker, had a lower immune system or may have been slower developmentally. That all costs you pounds in the fall and dollars out of your pocket. Heaven forbid you did lose a cow or a calf that could have potentially been saved by intervention- say good bye to more dollars.
We need to stick together
I want to stress the point that I am NOT saying that calving in the winter months is better. I am not saying it is worse. I AM saying that every rancher has their own reasons for calving when they do. Maybe you calve in January because you are a purebred breeder and require that extra time for bull development prior to your annual bull sale. Maybe you calve in June because you don't have the facilities to calve earlier and prefer not to worry about frozen ears. Or maybe you go south in the winter and therefore calve when you get back. So please don't chastise those who choose to trade a little extra hard work in the winter for more reward in the fall.
The point is, we are all cattle producers and we need to stop pointing the finger at eachother and instead, help each other out. With social licence, animal activitists and interested consumers we have more than enough to deal with these days, without having to worry about the harsh criticisms of our neighbours and friends. Instead of telling that winter calver how stupid he is for calving in -30, why don't you offer to help? Who knows, maybe he will offer to let you use his facilities to perform a c-section on a cow of yours in the summer? Or maybe he'll help out at branding time. We are all in this crazy business and lifestyle together- so let's act like it!
...Rant Over (and thank you for reading!)
If you're husband is anything like mine, he appreciates home made, useful gifts over store bought trinkets any day. So I thought I would share three easy DIY crafts to make your rancher this Valentines Day (that can totally be done fairly last minute!). Because let's be honest, what rancher doesn't have cracked lips and a sore back all winter from doing chores? And what rancher doesn't need a little more organization when it comes to calving? So here are a few of my very affordable, easy to do favorites!
I am not sure if this is more for my hubs or for me, but either way we fight with cracked, sore, dry lips all winter, being inside and out all the time. This is just a super easy recipe with some natural ingredients that you may even have on hand!
3 TBSP Bees Wax
3 TBSP Coconut Oil
1 TBSP Honey
1/2 tsp flavoring (I used vanilla extract)
5 small lip balm containers (I found mine at Michael's Craft Store)
In a microwave safe dish, melt the beeswax and coconut oil for 2 minutes. Be careful, it will be hot!
Mix in the TBSP of honey, stirring until combined. Then add in the flavoring/essential oil. Melt in the microwave for 15 seconds.
Pour the mixture into your containers and allow to cool. If it looks like your emulsion is settling out, mix it up again and put in the fridge for fast cooling. The recipe made 5 jars!
By: Jesse Williams
While it isn't a very exciting present- a bag of grain- it sure does feel good after a long day of chores in the cold. This super easy, quick, homemade gift will give your rancher a relaxing way to warm up or relax their aching muscles. Plus you can personalize with a fun material choice. Make one for each family member!
Cotton fabric (two fat quarters will work)
6 cups of wheat (or a preferably awnless cereal variety)
Sewing machine & thread
Pick your favorite cotton fabric, double it over and cut a 6.5" x 16" rectangle. You'll need to repeat this with another fabric choice, but you can pick any color you want as it will be inside and not visible. I picked a "lovely" pink floral pattern that has been sitting in my fabric drawer for years.
You'll now need to place the fabrics on top of each other in a specific order:
1. floral, face up
2. cowboy print, face up
3. cowboy print, face down
4. floral, face down
Pin in place for sewing.
Sew a seam along three edges (two long sides and one short side). I used a 1/4" seam. Turn the bag right side out.
Fill the bag with 6 cups of cereal grain, preferably wheat. Because we are not big grain farmers, the only thing we had in the bins was barley, which was quite dirty. I thought the awns might make the bag pokey but because of the two layers of fabric, you can't even feel them. I would still try to get an awnless variety if possible though.
You will now need to fold over the 1/4" seam on the short edge and sew the length shut. I did a double seam to make sure there would be no weak spots. Then, Voila! You have your very own microwavable heat bag. Pop it in the microwave for 2 minutes and place on all your aches and pains after a long day of chores, a late night pulling calves or cold day of moving cows.
Posted By: Jesse Williams
Before you get your knickers in a twist that I am suggesting bale grazing is somehow bad, don't (and it's not). I decided to write this post because of several experiences over the last few winters with ag specialists that seem to think they know our operation better than us. We have literally been told again and again that we are wasting our money by rolling out bales for our cow herd in the winter and that we could apparently save significantly by bale grazing. Now, I am a bit of a stubborn person so I don't like being told what I should and should not do, particularly when it comes to my own ranch and our cost of production. So we simply did the math. With our own numbers. For our own ranch.
Now I can already hear the nay-sayers complaining that this isn't an accurate representation of truck costs associated with bale unrolling, however I don't really care. This is literally the cost (to the penny in the case of 2015) for us. Obviously this would not be a comparable cost for a brand new diesel dually with a Falcan bale deck, but that's not we have so why would I calculate that? I am only interested in what makes sense for my operation, not what the neighbors are doing.
Our Daily Costs
So let's consider fuel. It costs us, on average (with $1.00/L gas) $120/month to feed our cows. We feed a variety of bales including pea straw ($45/bale), oat greenfeed ($100/bale) and hay ($175/bale) each week. I can hear the groans from readers again, however these are the actual bale costs, including delivery that we paid in the summer of 2015 to put them in our stack. And yes, we did pay a whopping $250/ton for that hay, but it was all we could get our hands on in the drought we experienced (we had it shipped from Pincher Creek) and yes, it did hurt to pay that, but our herd needs fed.
The fact that we utilize a variety of feed sources is important. We use Alberta Agriculture's Cowbytes ration balancing program and feed test all of our bales to determine the nutritional requirements of our herd. While we could balance their ration with just high quality hay, we simply couldn't afford to do that. So we got creative and calculated a ration with pea straw, greenfeed and hay that would meet the nutritional requirements of our pregnant and calving cows, that was also economical. Because our herd is small and bale size is fixed, we feed 8 pea straw, 4 greenfeed and 2 hay, on average, per week for a herd of 72. Of course this varies with the weather and as the cows mature during pregnancy. Based on that average, it costs us $2.20/head/day in feed alone.
Let's add that to the $0.05/head/day in fuel, using that $120/month average, which means it costs us $2.25/head/day. Now of course, we need to factor in some repair costs on trusty old Jack, so let's add another $0.25/head/day, which would equal a $1620 allowance, assuming a 3 month winter feeding program. Seeing how that is more than triple our 2015 actual costs of maintenance and repair, I'd call that adequate.
So overall, it is costing us $2.50/head/day, conservatively, to feed our cows on our operation, with our bale deck and truck.
The Economics of Bale Grazing
Let's compare that $2.50/head/day to what it would cost our operation to switch to bale grazing. The main reason we have shied away from bale grazing is the difficulty in varying our herd's diet. In order to be able to continue feeding three sources of bales, we would have to organize bales in our grazing system so that a one week supply of feed would consist of the 8 pea straw, 4 greenfeed and 2 hay. But I can tell you, if you give cows the option of multiple feed types at once, they will gorge themselves on the high quality types, and bed themselves on the pea straw. To battle this when unrolling bales, we only feed one feed type per day, making them clean up before we give them a different source.
The other option would be to give the herd access to only one type of feed per week. While the waste factor may be less, this is not a valid option in our opinion, as the large swings in nutritional value would be unhealthy for our herd.Therefore, the only option to make bale grazing work on our operation is to feed only one feed source, which would have to be hay in order to reach our nutritional requirements, according to Cowbytes. And with the price we had to pay for hay ($100/bale) due to our drought, that would mean a significant change in cost. The total would be $3.88/head/day. In addition to that, according to Alberta Agriculture's Wintering Site Assessment and Design Tool, bale grazing wastage is 8% higher than unrolling hay onto the snow, the total would rise to $4.19/head/day for our operation!
That is an extra $1.69/head/day, which would amount to a total of $10,951.20 extra for our 72 head herd over 3 months of winter feeding.
At the end of the day, PLEASE STOP TELLING ME WHATS BEST FOR MY RANCH! Let me do the math and figure out what's the most economical, time saving, nutritionally optimal for the unique needs of my herd. Just like I want every other producer to do on their own place. I am not telling you to stop bale grazing or start unrolling hay, but I am simply just suggesting that we should all take a look at our own numbers and stop yelling across the fence at the neighbors!
Posted By: Jesse Williams
Because our lives seem to be so hectic lately and we may not get to see our friends & family as much as we would like, we decided to post a monthly look-back to share with everyone. We're thinking of it as a our digital scrapbook of 2016! If you're interested in what we were up to this past month, have a read...
Happy New Year!
We rang the new year in with friends at a local community hall in Pollockville, AB, sharing tons of great laughs & enjoying a dance or too. Thanks to the Berry Creek Ag Society for putting on such a great show! We spent the next day with family and had the opportunity to take a sneak peak at Clay's brother's 2016 Sale Gelbvieh Bulls. And they were spectacular. Chuck & Jenn Williams of Flatland Ranch have done a ton of work with their breeding program over the past few years and it shows!
Clay's 1st Ice Fishing Adventure
We took a few days off in the beginning of January to enjoy a weekend of ice fishing with my family down in Brooks. While I grew up with this winter sport, Clay, being from what I like to call the 'desert', had never been before. He mastered the art very quickly and along with the rest of the men, brought home the bacon, er... fish! It was a very cold weekend (-25) but the kids were troopers and we had a great time!
At the Ranch
January on the ranch was pretty quiet. With relatively mild weather (except for a few days of -25) and average snow, feeding cows has been pretty easy (knock on wood!). Because I work in town all day and Clay is busy, busy, busy with our company Legacy Drilling, feeding cows during the week was always done at night. We are savoring every extra minute of daylight as the days lengthen towards spring.
We had a bit of a hiccup when Jack, our 30 year old bale truck, had an extended stay in the shop for some new u-joints and leaf springs, but luckily we had fabulous family members that let us borrow their equipment. Thanks to Clay's keen mechanic skills (and my expert light holding!) Jack is up, running and ready to roar for the rest of the winter!
We ended the month selling a few dry heifers for butchers (bringing them in on the COLDEST day all month of course!) and then bringing in our herd for their Scour Bos vaccinations. Thanks to an awesome crew and an absolutely BEAUTIFUL, sunny day in the pluses (quite contrary to the day we brought the butchers in!!), we blew through 210 head in 3 hours. The gorgeous weather at the end of the month did cause some melting and freezing, resulting in some slippery situations and crusted snow across our pastures/yards, but there's not much we can do about that. The herd looked good, their pea straw/hay/oat greenfeed diet obviously agreeing with them. We are on track to calve at the end of March!
On the Drilling Side...
Any extra time off the ranch (and in the evenings, and on coffee breaks and in the middle of the night when we should be sleeping...) has been devoted to our water solutions company, Legacy Drilling. While our main service is drilling water wells in the summer, we added some winter services to keep us going. Selling straightened, squared coil tubing has kept Clay on his feet loading customers and keeping track of inventories. But there were two much more exciting things that happened this month!
1. We received word that we can now license water wells, as Clay is a professional Engineer by trade. This will help our customers with larger projects such as irrigation or water diversion!
2. We are now an authorized distributor of CAP Solar Livestock Watering & Alternative Solar Options! Because so many of our wells we drill are remote and have no access to grid power, we are ecstatic to offer our customers solar & wind options for year round livestock watering no matter where you need it!
As an Ag Fieldman it felt like I spent most of my month in Edmonton going to conferences, but luckily there were some awesome learning opportunities that apply to our ranch, as well as the weed management industry. The Provincial Ag Service Board meeting was mid-January & FarmTech at the end of the month. Here are some links you may find interesting... (Click on the description for a link to more info).
Gary Conklin, a dairy farmer from Ohio shared his experiences unknowingly hiring an animal rights activist on his farm. He also gives some words of advice to other ranchers hiring employees.
Dr. Patrick Moore told a fascinating story about how he left Green Peace after they became a radical group of eco-terrorists. Now he shares his experiences with crowds & explains why agriculture is helping the CO2 crisis, not making it worse.
My personal favorite was an entertaining presentation about Tornado Hunting by CMT Tornado Hunter Greg Johnson. While it doesn't directly relate to agriculture (other than flying bales & cows!?), he is just such a captivating, enjoyable speaker that I had to share the link to his stuff!
There hasn't been any progress on the house front, other than we now know it is officially scheduled to arrive IN THREE PIECES the first week of June. We have our work cut out for us as we have to get the basement dug before then, plus have water/power/sewer lines to dig all across the yard once the ground thaws. For now, this is the view looking east towards our new yard, looking very bare with only a barn and a shop. Hopefully we see a heck of a lot of progress over the summer months on this project as our goal is to be in by September 2016... We MUST be crazy!!
Looking forward to February...
Bull shopping for a Simmental bull
Feeding cows & very impatiently waiting for calving to begin
Launching a NEW year round watering option with CAP Solar! Stay Tuned!
Our first Tradeshow with Legacy... nerve racking much!?!
Local seminars on milk replacements & cattle transport
And of course getting our Valentine's Day on... #rancherstyle (stay tuned for posts!)
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