Rancher sees success with late weaning and wintering calves with cows
A growing number of stockmen are calving during the months of April, May or June, rather than early, in order to have green grass at calving. Later calving also requires less need for harvested forage when the cows’ nutritional needs are peaking during lactation.
Along with later calving also comes later weaning. Some stockmen are choosing to winter their calves with their cows and wean at about 10 months of age in late February or March rather than wean during late fall or early winter.
Ruso Ranch sees success
Nick Faulkner of Ruso Ranch in central North Dakota has been wintering calves with their mothers for about 14 years.
“We keep them on their mothers for about 10 months, pulling them off two months before the cows calve again,” he says.
Spring weather can be nasty, and more ranchers are calving later and having good success.
“Calving is easier, with less work load. Later calving has worked very well for us, along with wintering calves with their mothers. We don’t have to vaccinate for scours or other calf diseases,” he says.
Being on mother’s milk through winter, without the stress of weaning, keeps calves robust and healthy.
“We monitor cows’ body condition throughout winter. Our feeding program helps keep most of them in good shape. We use a lot of cover crops, put those up as hay and then feed it through winter. Our animals are getting top-quality feed to help them keep body condition,” says Faulkner, noting even if some of the cows lose a little weight, most of the thinner cows will bounce back before they calve.
Simplifying the winter feed program
“Wintering pairs together simplifies our winter feeding program. My father-in-law raised corn for silage to feed during winter for 30 years, but now we no longer raise corn. We do more haying, and the calves go through winter so much better on the cows than they do being weaned,” he explains. “We’re doing some bale grazing to reduce costs. It all ties together with later weaning.”
Faulkner continues, “The calves are eating with the cows – whether bale grazing or pasture grazing – rather than waiting for the truck to bring feed out to them. They are more motivated to find their own feed and don’t become so spoiled and lazy.”
“We want our cattle to be working for us, rather than us working for them. The biggest thing I’ve noticed about later weaning is how much easier it is for all of us. We have fewer problems and less sickness,” he says.
“There is a lot of expense when feeding silage or grain through winter. This was the biggest thing about using corn silage, because corn was expensive to grow. We use the same land to raise grass – maybe even a higher-quality grass – at less expense than the corn or grain,” he says.
“We keep our own heifers rather than buy any. We keep all our calves, running them as yearlings on grass to sell in the fall,” he adds, noting their calves weaned in late February really bloom when they hit the grass.
“We like to run them on dry grass at first rather than lush green grass. They can start eating the new shoots under the old grass and gradually get onto the fresh grass,” Faulkner continues.
“They are not stressed at all by weaning. Many are already weaned by their mothers by the time we wean the group,” he says. “This is a natural age for them to be weaned, and the cows are already weaning them.”
Faulkner notes they keep calves on the cow for about eight to 10 months, depending on the year.
“We don’t stick to any particular time frame because it depends on the winter. A few years ago we were really dry, with severe drought for most of the summer. I didn’t want to keep the calves on the cows as long and actually fed my calves for the first time in several years because we were low on hay,” he notes.
“We like the late weaning, and it’s giving us bigger calves because they are on milk longer. By February about 75 percent of the calves are already self-weaned because the cows are drying up and kicking them off. Then it’s not such a big deal when we pull the rest of them off. There are very few bawling cows. The stress level for both calves and cows is lower when we do wean the calves,” he says.
The calves are fence-line weaned in the barnyard, with calves in the lot and cows on the other side of the fence. It’s a lot different weaning in winter than at other times of year when there is good grass on both sides of the fence for fence-line weaning.
“When we wean in February, we usually put calves on bales, such as forage from a cover crop we’ve baled. We feed the pairs first out in the pasture so the calves get used to eating those bales with their mothers, and then they go right to eating the bales when we wean them,” says Faulkner, who notes it really helps to have the calves adapted to the feed they will be eating, so there’s not a lot of change all at once.
A work in progress
Stockpiling grass for various times of year is one of the strategies Faulkner is working on, and says it’s always a work in progress to fine-tune management to fit an operation’s goals.
“Here in North Dakota, we have a lot of good farmer and ranchers who are trying a lot of these things, so I don’t always have to be the guinea pig. I can see how these things work for other people,” notes Faulkner.
Much of this is based on holistic management practices and working with Nature. The cattle can do a great job with reproduction when these things are more in sync with natural cycles and good nutrition.
“I don’t have to worry about some of the more labor-intensive ways to raise cattle because the cows are doing more of the work,” he says.
“The next generation is more likely to want to farm/ranch and keep doing this if it’s not so difficult. We are trying to be more efficient. Right now, if I had a traditional ranching operation, I am not sure if my young son and his future family could be on the farm. If I can reduce the work load and the inputs before we get to this point, it will be more doable,” says Faulkner.
Wintering pairs together is a new concept to many people, but has been done in other places for a long time, such as Australia and Africa. Sometimes operations have to adapt new ideas to fit their own conditions.
If a person gets locked into doing things a certain way just because that’s the way they’ve always done it, there could be some missed opportunities.
Heather Smith Thomas is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.