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Bring calving pens to the pasture

It’s a good idea to give heifers lots of space when calving

Editor’s Note: What works for beef producers? The Beef Cattle Research Council has asked a few Canadian beef producers about changes, production practices or new technology they’ve made or use that make a difference in their day-to-day management.

Good ideas can range from improving pasture watering systems and regularly testing winter feeds, to reducing costs during the fall/winter grazing period, to simple ideas that reduce the stress of calving out heifers, to more sweeping approaches on how to manage an intensive grazing system — all have a common objective to improve beef herd performance in sustainable farming systems,” says the BCRC.

Here is one of those ideas a Canadian beef producer shared that help them produce more pounds of beef, reduce workload, improve overall efficiency and benefit cattle and the environment. And for more good information visit the BCRC website.

Managing calving heifers in remote locations

Sherri and Lynn Grant
Grant Ranch
Val Marie, Sask.

When it isn’t practical to bring the heifers to maternity pens during calving season, you bring the maternity pens to the heifers on pasture. That’s what the Grant Ranch in southern Saskatchewan has done for the past three calving seasons and it’s an idea they wish they’d thought of sooner.

The idea was born in the spring of 2016, says Sherri Grant who along with her husband Lynn and brother-in-law Dean ranch near Val Marie in southwest Saskatchewan, just north of the Montana border. “We were trying a different program in 2015 and had synchronized and AI’ed a fairly large group of heifers.” As the heifers started calving in early April 2016, the Grants were dealing with essentially a couple of good problems, calves were coming fast and furious. It was “raining” calves, but calving conditions also got a bit soggy as the clouds brought some much-needed rain.

As Sherri Grant wrote on the ranch blog at the time, “At the hub of this week though, it has been raining calves. We have averaged 12 calves per day in the last 10 days. We have a very busy maternity ward… Out of 230 heifers, we have had 50 per cent of the group calve with 117 calves.”

The heifer-calving pasture is about 1-½ miles from ranch headquarters, so a bit of travel is involved to check on calving progress, and if something did need calving assistance, it wasn’t easy to provide on pasture and took some organization if the heifer needed to be brought back to the home place. “The maternity pens were actually Dean’s idea,” says Grant. “We have windbreaks out on pasture for the heifers, so he suggested we take portable corral panels out to the calving pasture and set up maternity pens against the windbreaks.”

So for the calving season of 2016 they set up two or three maternity pens against different sets of windbreaks over the heifer-calving pasture. Using steel pipe corral panels for the sides as well as a gate panel, each pen was a 12′ x 24′ configuration and bedded with straw.

“And it worked really well,” says Grant. “It’s not that a lot of them needed assistance but it was just much easier to keep an eye on them, particularly at night. And it becomes even more important if you have cool, wet rainy or snowy conditions at calving time and you want to make sure that a calf has nursed and is up and going.”

She also notes that period from birth until the calf is up and nursing is also an important time for usually first-time mothers to mother-up and bond with and know their calves.

The corral panel pens are set up against the wooden windbreaks. While they are used during the day, especially if the heifer needs assistance, they are particularly of value as evening and nightfall sets in. If they see a heifer is getting close to calving they herd it into one of the maternity pens and can check on it later.

“You can come back in a hour to check or just wait in the truck and the heifer is not going wander off on you,” says Grant. “When they are out on the large calving pasture and especially when it’s dark, they can be hard to find, or maybe you do find a heifer with a new calf, but then you might wonder is that her calf or did she steal a calf from someone else. So being able to move them into a maternity pen right on pasture, just reduces stress and provides peace of mind.”

The first year, out of 117 head born during the first 10 days of the calving season, only seven per cent of heifers needed assistance at calving.

Once the heifer calves and the Grants have seen the calf up and nursing and looking vigorous, the pair is turned back out onto pasture. At the end of calving season, the corral panels are collected and used as needed during the grazing season. The pasture maternity pens worked so well the first year, the Grants have kept the system going each of the past couple seasons. They will have panel pens set up again for the 2019 calving season, even though heifer numbers are down to more usual 100-plus head this coming season. The main cow herd, ranging between 800 and 900 head, calves on open rolling pasture about 10 miles from the ranch headquarters. That herd is checked as well, but is pretty self-reliant and trouble free when delivering calves.

“Often invention is the mother of desperation,” Grant says jokingly. “That first year we had a larger number of calves than usual, the calves were coming fast and the weather really wasn’t co-operating so bringing maternity pens to the pasture really made it so much easier to manage.”

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