A big question for many cattle producers is how to make their operation more profitable.
“Cow-calf producers tend to operate on a fixed land/feed base associated with a substantial overhead cost in annual rents and finance payments,” says John Dhuyvetter, North Dakota State University (NDSU) Extension livestock systems specialist at the North Central Research Extension Center near Minot.
Key profitability drivers are the production of as many pounds of calf as possible to sell off the resource (land/feed) and capturing favorable market prices, he notes. Factors that contribute to the pounds produced are the calf crop percentage (low calf losses equate to more calves to sell), cow longevity (lower heifer retention equals more producing cows), calf weights (which are a function of genetics, age, and nutrition), and stocking rate.
For the operation to be sustainable, the forage resource is limited in pounds and the animals it can support. Opportunities are available to enhance production through grazing systems and management that improves soil and moisture retention.
However, while simply overstocking and overutilization may improve output in the short term, they likely will diminish output through time. On a fully utilized land/feed resource, even selecting cows for added calf growth and weaning weights likely will not improve profitability.
“From a feed equivalency standpoint, differing numbers of cows of varied sizes weaning calves of different sizes generate the same market weight,” Dhuyvetter says.
For example, 88 frame score 4 cows each weighing 1,200 pounds and weaning 550-pound steer calves at seven months have roughly the same feed need and generate the same market weight as 75 frame score 7 cows each weighing 1,500 pounds and weaning 650-pound steer calves. The feed needs are similar for 83 frame score 5 cows each weighing 1,300 pounds and weaning 585-pound steer calves, and 79 frame score 6 cows each weighing 1,400 pounds and weaning 620-pound steer calves. With selection for higher milk production, which may increase weaning weight, stocking rates will be reduced further.
“If reproduction, calving loss, culling rate, and market price are the same, there is no advantage to any size group,” Dhuyvetter says.
“If, however, there is some adaption advantage, as seen in maintaining body condition, leading to better breed-back and calf survival, by some type or size group, an economic efficiency exists. Similarly, if the market discounts prices for some weight/size combination, that group will be economically disadvantaged.”
The market generally slides prices, paying more per pound for lighter calves; however, this may not reflect true value differences for some heavier calves capable of greater feeding efficiency and carcass value, he notes. That being the case, somewhat smaller calves appear to be favored until calf prices become discounted.
Along with the consideration of cow and feeder calf size is the potential value of the terminal crossing of larger sires with moderately smaller cows to maintain high cow numbers capable of producing greater weaning weight of greater market preference. An example is mating bulls with acceptable calving ease scores and a frame score of 6 to frame score 4 cows and providing supplemental feed (creep) if necessary to add growth.
“Decades of selection for greater growth and size have been associated with improved efficiencies in the feedlot and packing sectors,” Dhuyvetter says.
“It also has resulted in larger, more productive cow types on the ranch, which may or may not be more efficient.
“Cow requirements need to be matched to and met by ranch resources to avoid costly excessive inputs,” he adds.
“It’s about achieving lots of weight to sell at favorable prices from a herd of cows of moderate size that are capable of producing a high calf crop percentage with minimal culling.” — NDSU Extension
Low-stress weaning—regardless of how we do it—begins with how we gather and bring in the cattle. If we don’t do it properly, the cows and calves are in panic mode before we even have them in the corral. ( Sara Brown )
A lot of producers look forward to weaning with nothing but dread because it’s so often a bad experience for them, their cows and sometimes their facilities. Many producers can tell stories about their corrals being torn down by the cows postweaning, and not being able to sleep for three or four nights after weaning due to bawling cows and calves.
Also, weaning can be an extremely high-stress experience for calves and the short-term effect on health and performance can be significant. For example, the stress of abrupt weaning increases fatal secondary bacterial respiratory infections and average daily gains can be seriously compromised.
The conventional belief is weaning is a difficult, traumatic experience, and the cows and calves are going to want to get back together. Therefore, we need to do it in a sturdy corral. And here’s the irony: If we believe that’s the way it’s going to be it probably will; it all starts with our mindset.
But it needn’t be that way.
Weaning can be done low stress, but it takes a different mindset. The low-stress belief is that weaning is only traumatic and stressful because we make it so. If left alone, cows will wean their calves naturally and with no fuss and no postweaning sickness or weight loss. They are also more than likely happy to be rid of their 6- to 8-month-old 500-lb. to 600-lb. calves. And that’s the way it should be when we do it. The problem is, we get the animals out of a normal frame of mind and end up causing all the problems we normally experience with weaning. The cows’ concern is us, not necessarily the weaning. If the cattle are always handled well, they learn to trust their handlers and they know their calves aren’t in danger.
So, low-stress weaning—regardless of how we do it—begins with how we gather and bring in the cattle. If we don’t do it properly, the cows and their calves are unmothered and in panic mode before we even have them in the corral. But if we bring them in calmly and mothered up, the actual weaning process is rather uneventful.
A particular form of low-stress weaning involves weaning through a gate between two pastures. The idea is to calmly separate pairs at the gate so they never lose sight of each other or, if they do, they can quickly find each other across the fence. With this approach the emotional trauma of complete separation is mitigated.
A three-year study compared the behavior and postweaning performance of calves that were: not weaned (the control group), fence-line weaned and abruptly weaned. The fence-line-weaned calves exhibited similar behavior to the non-weaned calves and they spent more time eating than the calves that were abruptly weaned. They also gained 50% more weight during the first two weeks after weaning.
Ingredients For Success
1. Prepare Your Cattle
In general, everything we do with our cattle that we’ve been talking about in this stockmanship series will train more manageable animals that will help in the weaning process.
Of particular importance is training your cattle to calmly walk past a handler at a gate. If you don’t do this, then fence-line weaning will likely be difficult at best.
2. Pasture Management
You need two pastures, each with enough forage to last at least seven days.
Keep the cattle in the pasture where the calves will stay for several days prior to weaning so they get used to their new home.
3. Cattle Management
Prior to weaning, pour the cattle back and forth several times to prepare them for the weaning (Figure A).
If your cattle are accustomed to walking calmly past a handler at a gate you might only have to do this exercise once. However, if they are not, you might have to repeat this several times over successive days until they understand the process.
On weaning day:
Gather cattle loosely near the gate.
The sorter opens the gate and draws the cattle to him (See photo A).
One or more handlers can keep a slow, steady stream of pairs walking to the gate (See Photo B).
The sorter makes the split at the gate (Photo C).
If you make a mistake (e.g., a calf gets through the gate) resist the temptation to fix it because that will unnecessarily stir everything up; rather, wait a few days postweaning and go straighten it out.
Going through these preparatory steps is important. If you don’t follow protocol, you are inviting a wreck. For instance, one rancher fence-line weaned across a page wire electric fence, and the cows tore down a couple hundred feet of the fencing because he didn’t go through these steps. If done properly, however, cattle have been weaned across a single-strand electric fence.
If protocol is followed, weaning should be a non-event for the cattle as illustrated in Photos D and E. Photo D was taken down the fence line (the sorting gate is in the foreground) later on weaning day. As depicted, all the cows and calves are out grazing and nothing is hanging on the fence. Photo E was taken the next day. Some cows and calves have returned to the fence but nothing is balled up on the fence, and there was no bawling.
Many ranchers have ways to load cattle into a stock trailer, but if they send calves or cull cows on a cattle truck or semi they need a loading chute. A good chute makes it easy to load or unload cattle, and is easy for the trucker to get to and away from.
Rusty Hamilton (Salmon, Idaho) hauls cattle all over the West and has loaded or unloaded at thousands of chutes—at ranch headquarters, sale barns, feedlots and more. Some chutes work better than others.
“For the floor, many people use wood (with cleats) or dirt and those give good traction for the cattle. I’ve loaded and unloaded at chutes with expanded metal flooring and I don’t like those; even though they are easier to keep clean because manure falls through, I don’t like an open floor because cattle can look down through it and this can spook them,” he explains.
Cleats on a wood floor are important for traction, and Hamilton suggests bolting wood strips onto the floor. “If they are just nailed, and cows come sliding out of the truck (if there’s moisture on the flooring) and hit the cleats they pull the nails right out—and then you have sharp nails sticking up.”
Angle is also important. “The ramp needs to be at least 10 to 12 feet long but doesn’t have to be much longer, because you are only going from ground level up to 36 to 48 inches to get into the truck or cattle trailer. I’ve loaded cattle up some 6 foot ramps, however, and they will do it but it’s a pain; some of them balk if it’s that steep,” says Hamilton.
Width is also important. You don’t want a chute too narrow for big cattle, but you don’t want it so wide that smaller cattle try to turn around. “About 30 to 36 inches is probably as wide as you want it. This may be a little tight for a big bull, but for cows and calves it works pretty well,” he says.
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The loading area needs to be big enough that trucks can turn around and back up to the chute easily. Avoiding sloped areas is best, he said. “They really need at least 200 feet by 200 feet in front of the loading chute to easily turn around and back in there. Sometimes we have to do it in smaller spaces, but it’s trickier. As long as you have a straight shot at it—so drivers can pull up and back into the chute—and not have a sharp corner when they pull out from the chute, it works ok.”
Hamilton has a couple of tips for what not to do when building a loading chute.
“Don’t build it inside a corral. That’s fine when the corrals are dry, but in winter or spring it gets muddy and slick (or boggy) and hard for trucks to get in and out.” The space for maneuvering a big truck may be limited unless the corral is large.
“Don’t put a loading chute alley on the same alley where cattle are moved toward the squeeze chute. Some people do that to save space, but the cows don’t want to go that direction and tend to balk when you try to load them. They associate it with the working chute,” says Hamilton.
You want a good corral design for getting cattle sorted and moved into a loading chute. Sometimes pens are awkward for loading. “I recommend at least a couple gates in the alleyway, and a gate near the bottom of the loading chute, so you can close it off. Then if a few cattle come out you are not unloading the whole load,” he says.
“Make the sides of the loading chute solid (wood or metal), so cattle can’t see through it as they go up the ramp. It’s just like a working chute; if they can’t see out they tend to go better without balking at something they see off to the side, and they’ll follow the cow ahead of them. If you put a slight turn to the alley leading to the ramp, this is better than a straight chute because they don’t see what’s happening at the truck and tend to just follow the cow ahead because they think they are getting away,” he explains.
He also recommends having a walkway up the loading chute so people can go along it if necessary, to encourage a reluctant animal. “I would also put a gate at the top so a person can come out of the loading chute (after following a bunch of calves, for instance), and walk back down the walkway. If the chute has solid sides it is really hard to climb out; you need a gate to go in and out of the truck or chute,” he says.
“Many people put a swinging gate at the top so it can be adjusted in case the truck is not exactly perfectly straight against the chute; they can move the gate a little to close a gap, but if the chute has solid sides I’d still put a gate at the top so a person can get through it—like an escape door in a trailer. If something is coming after you, it’s good to have a gate and not have to try to scramble up a solid wall!”
RANCHER PERSEPECTIVE – Reuben Olson, who ranches near Prairie City, South Dakota, has several loading chutes, but his main chute is made of wood. “It is not very steep; it is 16 feet long. We have a lift on it so we can adjust the height. We can drop it down to load a stock trailer and raise it to various heights to load different size trucks. It is about 3 feet wide, with solid sides. Cattle will go up the chute a lot better if they can’t see through the side or the bottom; there’s nothing spooky to distract them on the outside.
“I talked with one guy who built his ramp in stair-step fashion–like going up short little steps, and the cattle go up it very well, and it isn’t at all slippery,” says Olson.
Some people build up an area for the chute (or have trucks coming to it on a lower level) so the floor is dirt or gravel rather than having a ramp. “Many sale barns have a chute with dirt floor and this is good footing. The cattle don’t have to go up a ramp; they walk straight onto the truck on the same level. I think that would be ideal,” he says.
Holding pens behind the chute should be user-friendly, to get the cattle in. “If the loading chute is next to the gate where they ordinarily go out of the corral, you can line up the pens so cattle are moving in a circle and know this is the direction to go out of the corral. If they always go out that corner, they naturally want to go that way,” he explains.
Brian Glass and Kent Wilkinson, also of Prairie City, built two loading chutes in Glass’s shop last winter out of steel. One of the biggest challenges was moving the heavy chute outside and into place.
“We used oilfield pipe for the frame (posts and base), and sheet metal for the sides,” says Glass. The sheet metal was 3/16ths thickness, and 4 by 8 foot sheets. “We used quarter-inch plate for the ramp. I made a double chute—side by side—one at ground level with just a dirt floor for loading stock trailers, and the metal ramp for the loading chute for semis.”
The quarter-inch plate for the ramp was heavy and awkward to handle but made a solid, durable floor. “We used old steel posts that were bent or too short for cattle fences as treads for the floor,” says Glass. These were welded onto the metal plate, for traction. Eventually he plans to make a small ramp for the trailer-loading chute so calves can step right into the trailer and not have to jump up.
“The metal ramp for the truck chute works nicely. One neighbor said we should have used wood (bridge planks) because metal would be too noisy. But the cattle loaded very well up the metal ramp and it wasn’t noisy because everything was welded solid and didn’t rattle. I figured the quarter inch plate would last a lot longer than wood.”
The chute is 36 inches wide. “It could be a little narrower but a big bull will fit through this, and when are loading calves if one calf stops another one can go by it. The ramp is about 16 feet, but 3 feet of that is a level landing at the top. The 13 feet is a gradual incline and then there’s the flat spot where they walk into the cattle truck. I saw one like that and thought it was a good idea—so the cattle are not scrambling upward as they go into the truck,” says Glass.
“I put a door so you can walk through, and not have to crawl over the solid side. I also put a door up front on the trailer side, so you can get in and out and slide the trailer gate,” he explains.
The sides of the chute are 5-foot 2-inch height from floor to top. “This is the height I build free-standing panels; cattle don’t try to jump over,” says Glass.
“It took a little longer to build and more material than we thought, but will last a long time—much longer than wood. We used 2 7/8 inch oilfield pipe for the bottom frame and 2 3/8 drill steel pipe for the posts. We made a bottom base and welded the posts to the frame; the posts are not set in the ground. If necessary I could lift and move it to a different spot.”
Wilkinson says these chutes will last beyond their lifetimes. “We put conveyer belting on one side of his to help buffer and muffle the sound.”
For anyone trying to build a metal chute, Wilkinson and Glass recommend making sure you have extra time, and some help to hold everything. “It’s very heavy material, and squaring up the posts on top of that pipe is tricky and you need an extra hand,” says Glass. “It was really good having the neighbors help.” Kent Wilkinson and his father Jim helped put the chutes together.
Some of the angles were also tricky, but doable. “I used a plasma cutter, but mainly a chop saw. I created a saddle at the end of my pipes, to touch each other, rather than a straight cut, so there wasn’t so much gap to weld. It fits better and saves a lot of welding,” he says.
“Sometimes a trucker is in a hurry or not careful when backing up and hits a chute pretty hard. The wooden ones don’t hold up very well with that kind of abuse, and they weather too much. Metal will last a lot longer,” says Wilkinson.
The study of chemistry is based on absolutes more than variation.
The study of biology is based on variation more than absolutes.
Sometimes, what we do is absolute, but more often than not, what we do has a varied response.
That is so true in agriculture. Agricultural managers are called upon routinely to evaluate variation and sort out the good and, in some cases, actually seek more, not less, planned variation. And so today, we take a look at diversity.
Diversity is a buzzword today in agriculture: crop rotations, planting sequences, cover crops. All of these elements are part of successful management.
Grasslands, by their evolution, are historically diverse. However, the cows in the pasture have very little visual diversity, which is evidenced by cattle producers’ underutilization of additional cattle breeds or types.
Diversity throughout agriculture is a good thing. The crossing of cattle breeds or selected lines of cattle opens a new dimension, a dimension that positively responds to the freshness of increased vigor. That is good.
Just like crop producers are exploring and expanding plant diversity within grain and forage production, so should the beef producer. The livestock producer does not need to stop with simply crossbreeding cattle. I want to go one step further and expand the grassland grazers to cattle and sheep.
Yes, I said cattle and sheep. Diversity of livestock is a healthy approach to livestock production, and that goodness ultimately is expressed in better grass production through enhanced grasslands. Cattle and sheep are an obvious source of diversity within grassland grazers.
The complementary grazing of cattle and sheep is real, not just something to ponder. The Dickinson Research Extension Center determined the biological needs of sheep fit very well with cattle.
In fact, grazing ewes and cattle at the center, one ewe to every cow, complemented the cow herd very well. The cow and ewes, along with their offspring, were able to maintain normal growth without affecting the grasslands.
A very diverse plant population exposed to two types of grazers allows the opportunity for additional revenue per acre above the revenue from simply grazing with cattle. The grass did well, the livestock did well and the producer did well.
But! Yes, this scenario has “buts.” Creating diversity with alternative livestock assumes cows have the luxury of being the principal, or primary, grazing animal. The cow is not going to be replaced, but reviewing other opportunities for grazing alternative, companion livestock is a good mind-expanding process.
On a recent trip to Mongolia, I observed vast comingled herds of grazing cattle, sheep, goats, yaks, camels and horses on grasslands. Why? The thought is to better utilize the land and available forage that grows on the land.
Obviously, comingling has limits, and once that limit is met, additional grazing or stocking on the grasslands is detrimental. But finding that limit is part of the art and science of livestock production. One thing is for sure: Grazing systems that only utilize one species, such as cattle, leave additional grazing opportunities on the table.
But – yes, another “but” – comingling livestock, such as cattle and sheep, is not easy. The challenges to measuring the bottom dollar in a cattle or sheep operation are difficult to overcome. Nevertheless, let’s move forward.
At the Dickinson Research Extension Center, research suggesting one ewe can be added to the grasslands for every cow that is grazing at no expense to cattle or grasslands is ongoing. Granted, adding sheep to a cattle operation means more work and producer education; however, that does not mean the opportunity is not there.
What about the grass? What about the added dollars if dollars are tight? Currently, the center maintains a flock of White Dorper and St. Croix crossbred hair sheep to graze areas that the cattle will not.
This approach does bring challenges. Like most beef operations, the center is short of labor. Adding a more management-intensive species of livestock, such as sheep, requires considerable thought and planning. Still, the bottom line: When appropriate, adding ewes to make the sheep enterprise significant without decreasing the cow herd makes sense.
For years, the center has utilized sheep for forage management, particularly around the empty cattle pens during the summer. Although the cattle pastures have not been targeted yet, the center has several plant species that could be managed better by multispecies grazing. But first, management hurdles need to be addressed.
Sheep uniqueness also is very real, but diversity is good. The learning curve is steep but doable. But do we want to? “Yes” is the correct answer.