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Fresh Pens and Pastures Keep Calves Healthy

The Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC) is Canada’s national industry-led funding agency for beef research. The organization’s work is directed by a committee of beef producers from across Canada.

Thanks to the Beef Cattle Research Council of Canada for this information!

Doug Wray believes in keeping newborn calves separated as much as possible from other two-week and older calves on his south-central Alberta farm to avoid livestock congestion and dramatically reduce the risk of congregated calves developing and spreading scours. And for the past several years the plan has worked.

Wray, who along with family members operates Wray Ranch near Irricana, north of Calgary, has developed this calving-on-pasture system over the past 10 years. In his year-round grazing system, his herd of about 300 bred cows moves onto grass about May 10. They actually begin calving May 1 on swath grazing and then by May 10 the pregnant cows move to grass and the first batch of cows-with-calves stay behind.

The first grass pasture is 160 acres in size, divided into eight 20-acre paddocks.

“The herd is managed in one group on pasture for about two weeks before we make the first split,” says Wray. At roughly the first two-week mark cows with calves (usually about 120 head) “are taken to fresh pasture in one direction, while the bred cows head to new grass in another direction,” he explains. Wray essentially runs two herds at calving season. One group of pregnant cows, that gets smaller with each passing week, and one group of cow-calf pairs that gets larger over the calving season. The pregnant cows are managed on one quarter divided into paddocks, while the cow-calf pairs are managed on another quarter about three-quarters of a mile away. That quarter is also divided into paddocks.

The timing of each split of the herd — separating pregnant cows from cow-calf pairs — is determined by “it depends”, says Wray. Part of the decision is based on how fast grass is growing and the other part on how many cows have calved. “On average once we get into mid and later May we are probably making a split every three or four days to a week,” says Wray. “If the grass is really growing we move faster and if it is slower we may delay the move.”

Photo courtesy of Beef Cattle Research Council and Dr. Claire Windeyer

“It is very much a read and react approach,” says Wray. On the pregnant herd quarter he’s looking to move that group to new grass at least once a week. Pregnant cows are removed from any cow-calf pairs and the pregnant cows go into to a new paddock. The cow-calf pairs remain behind. Once he has somewhere between 50 and 75 cow-calf pairs in a paddock on the pregnant-herd side of the rotation, he trails those cow-calf pairs over to the pair’s quarter section where they join earlier cow-calf pairs.

And of course with each split the pregnant cow numbers are getting smaller while the cows-with-calves group is getting larger. But it is a parallel system with each group moving to new ground every few days to about a week. “The overall principle is to keep both groups of cattle moving to fresh ground,” says Wray. “Quite often we have an environment where we have plenty of fresh growing grass and the sun is shining, and it is very favourable conditions for calving. If we run into a couple days where it is cold and wet we won’t move a group of new cow-calf pairs from the pregnant herd side of the rotation over to the pairs-rotation. We’ll wait. But generally if we have nice sunny conditions there hasn’t been a problem moving pairs from one rotation over to the other and mixing them with older calves. But again, even the pairs’ side is moving to fresh ground about once a week.”

The rotation is good for calf health and it also fits with Wray’s pasture management objectives — as grass is rapidly growing he likes to move cattle through quickly to take the first clip off before they return later in the season.

Photo by Doug Wray

The herd’s breeding season usually runs about 54 days, so the length of calving season is typically one week on either side of that period. “Once we get to early June we may only have 20 head or so left to calve,” says Wray. By the end of calving season, the herd will be regrouped in a main herd of cow-calf pairs to continue through a rotational grazing system for the summer.

“Our primary objective is to keep new born calves from being all bunched together and to make sure we’re always calving on fresh ground,” says Wray. The system has produced excellent results from a calf-health standpoint.

“Scours and some of the other new born calf issues such as respiratory disease, just aren’t a concern,” says Wray.

He was a bit concerned by the late spring of 2018 — cows were just beginning to calve as snow was melting — but the system worked well again. The herd was swath grazing close to the corrals right up to calving. But just as calving started he moved the herd to a nearby quarter section of grass not far from the cattle handling facilities. “The snow stayed right up until calving, so ground conditions were fairly wet,” he says. “I figured if there were any problems on pasture, the herd was close enough that I could bring anything that needed attention over to the corrals. There were maybe half a dozen we had to bring back because cows had swollen udders or really large teats and the calves couldn’t nurse, but no scours.”

Wray says his management strategy for healthy calves is to keep newborns separated from older calves and always keep the calving herd moving to new ground a build up of disease bacteria. “The system seems to work well for us because we are calving later, calving on pasture and we are also moving cattle to make sure they have fresh grass,” says Wray.

“Implementing some version of this calving system does take time and labor,” says Windeyer. “But if a beef operation appears to be struggling with some degree of scours every year it may be well worth considering. It might only take having a couple more calves to wean in the fall to cover the cost of the time and management required to reduce the risk of scours.”

Doug Wray’s system is very similar to the Sandhills Calving System developed about 20 years by the University of Nebraska in the Sandhills of the state. The system was designed to improve calf health and reduce scours. Stay tuned next week when we cover that system and the causes and prevention of scours in calves.

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