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Wintering calves with their mothers

Most cows and calves will naturally wean themselves by February

Many beef producers are calving later in the year (April, May or June) rather than early, to be more in tune with nature. They have green grass at calving and less need for harvested forage when the cow’s nutritional needs peak during lactation. Along with later calving comes the necessity for later weaning. Some choose to winter the calves with the cows and wean at about 10 months of age (in late February or March) rather than wean during late fall or early winter.

Nick Faulkner of Ruso Ranch in North Dakota has been wintering calves with their mothers for about 13 years. “We keep them on their mothers about 10 months, pulling them off two months before the cows calve again,” he says. “Every year I’ve been pushing the calving season back a little. Last year we started the middle of May and eventually we will calve in June. We want to calve out on pasture.”

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Spring weather in North Dakota can be nasty, and some ranchers are calving later with good success. “Calving later is easier, with less workload,” Faulkner says. “Later calving has worked very well for us, along with wintering calves with their mothers. We don’t give any vaccinations for scours or other calf diseases.” Being on mother’s milk through winter without the stress of weaning keeps calves healthy.

Faulkner says they do monitor the cows’ body condition through winter and adjust rations to keep them in good shape. They feed a lot of cover crops that are put up as hay. “The cows are getting top-quality feed to help them keep body condition,” Faulkner says. Even if some lose a little weight, most of the thinner cows bounce back before they calve.

He also finds that wintering pairs together simplifies the winter feeding program. They no longer raise corn for silage, in favour of producing more hay. “We’re doing a lot of bale grazing, trying to reduce costs,” he says. “It all ties together, with later weaning. Calves are eating with the cows whether bale grazing or pasture grazing, rather than waiting for the truck to bring feed to them.” Animals are motivated to find their own feed and don’t become so lazy.

Photo: Heather Smith Thomas.

“One of the biggest things I’ve noticed about the later weaning is how much easier it is,” Faulkner says. “We have fewer problems and less sickness. Calves go through winter much better with the cows than they do if they’d been weaned and separated.”

Increasing herd numbers

The ranch has been gradually increasing cow numbers. “We keep our own heifers rather than buy replacements,” he says. “We keep our calves after weaning, running them as yearlings on grass to sell in the fall.”

Calves weaned in late February really bloom on the grass. “We like to run them on dry grass at first rather than lush green grass,” Faulkner says. The weaned calves start eating the new shoots under the old grass and gradually get onto fresh grass.

“They are not stressed at all by weaning; many of them are already weaned by their mothers by the time we wean the group,” Faulkner says, noting this is a natural age for cows and calves to go their separate ways.

Calves stay with cows for eight to 10 months, depending on the year. By February about 75 per cent of the calves are already self-weaned because the cows are kicking them off. Then it’s not such a big deal when we pull the rest of them off, he says. For the final transition, remaining cow-calf pairs are fenceline-weaned in the barnyard. The calves are in the lot, while cows are on the other side of the fence.

Stockpiling grass for various times of year is one of the strategies he is working on. It’s always a work in progress, fine-tuning the management to fit goals “There are folks here in the North Dakota Grazing Lands Coalition who have been good mentors for us,” Faulkner says. Much of this weaning and management philosophy is based on holistic management practices and working with instead of against nature.

“We try to look at the whole picture,” he says. “The deer don’t have their fawns in January or February; they give birth in late May and into June.” He says it is important to learn from natural processes.

While wintering pairs together is a new concept for many producers in North America, it is a practice that’s been used in other places such as Australia and Africa for a long time.

While it may not work in all situations, it is one of those “new ideas” that may be worth consideration.

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