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!)
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