13 things to consider to holistically manage your cowherd

13 things to consider to holistically manage your cowherd

In my previous three articles, I addressed topics that need to be considered “holistically” or in a “systems approach” to obtain good results. In the first article, I argued that there is a better way to do everything we do and expressed my dislike for the term “best practices.” I suggested that only a few farmers and ranchers have really started to make improvements to their soil and land. No one intentionally harms their land; but by ignoring or not taking time to learn “better practices,” many are allowing their land to degrade by the use of grazing and farming practices that were developed when we knew no better.

I also suggested that we are not very good at selecting replacement heifers and that we should let nature and the bulls do the selection. 

In addition, good managers should be able to sell heifer calves, open or bred yearling heifers, or cows for a profit. Therefore, you don’t need to keep a cow for five or six years for her to cover her costs. We too often forget that we keep cows to have calves, and the calves’ job is to cover the cows’ cost for a year plus make a profit. The sale of cows should cover their development costs.

Scattered throughout the articles were the following 13 points that need to be considered together to achieve best possible results:

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  1. We need to learn from nature and develop systems that are highly dependent on sunlight, rainfall, soil and our ingenuity with low dependence on fossil fuel, iron and chemicals. Much progress is being made and there is still much to learn about natural systems. As we learn how the soil and all nature reacts to our actions, especially as we farm and graze, we will be able to become more reliant on sunlight, soil, rainfall and our ingenuity for increased production and soil health. 
     
  2. Improving grazing practices can be the catalyst for many good things—lower inputs and fed feed, increased carrying capacity, simpler operating systems, etc. Include strategic supplementation of protein and minerals in your grazing planning. Since retiring in 2010, I have visited a lot of places as a consultant and speaker. In nearly all of those, I have tried to visit some progressive, out-of-the box thinkers. I thought my co-workers and I had made great progress before my retirement, but I have since seen results that are almost unbelievable—farming without fertilizers and pesticides and very little herbicide where the yields are not at the very top, but they are respectfully better than local averages with much less cost. Soil and water infiltration are greatly improving. With the implementation of planned, time-controlled, adaptive grazing, I have seen stocking rates at more than double local averages with so much feed remaining that you know stocking rates will still increase even more.
     
  3. Calving in sync with nature so that cows are calving, nursing, preparing to rebreed and rebreeding when they require no fed feed except for appropriate protein and mineral supplementation.
     
  4. Cut fed feed inputs, buy or raise bulls to fit your environment and then cull the right cows. You may choose to cut feed inputs and move your calving date over a three or four year period to avoid the possibility of having to cull too many cows in one year. You might also want to see if you need to move some protein supplementation from winter or spring to fall to maintain body condition when cows are breeding on fall grass.
     
  5. Recognize that, if you cull all open and dry cows and a few more with other problems, about half or more will be gone by the time they reach six years of age.
     
  6. To let nature select replacement heifers, you must use a minimal development program achieving about 55% of expected mature cow body weight by the beginning of breeding season and have a short exposure to bulls. I like less than 30 days with 21-24 days being my ideal. Anything more than this is not letting nature select the heifers. Your management is selecting them and allowing animals of lower innate fertility to become pregnant. Supplementing protein to the bred yearling prior to calving as a two year old and again just prior to breeding as a two year old could produce good results for lifetime production.
     
  7. Nothing that EPDs or genetics can add to late-bred heifers will compensate for the lifetime productivity of heifers that calve early the first time. Heifers that conceive in the first cycle are so much better in lifetime productivity. They will wean bigger calves, because of age, not growth rate, and will average one more calf in a lifetime. This does not imply that we should not be concerned with growth rate and carcass traits when selecting bulls. However, we may want to use the available EPDs to limit mature size, milking ability and even growth rate to fit our environment.
     
  8. It is much more economical to sell an open yearling heifer than an open two-year-old heifer or an older open cow.
     
  9. You will need to keep and expose significantly more heifers than you want to become pregnant. If you have a good record of previous calvings, you will know what percentage came in the first 21, 24, or 30 days. You can then divide the target number for pregnant heifers by that percentage to determine the number to expose. If I don’t have a history available, I like to assume no more than 60-65% pregnancy rate when changing to a short breeding season for heifers, meaning if I want 50 pregnant, I will have to expose 77-83.
     
  10. With cows, I like a short-calving season and a long-breeding season. You might ask how that is done. You sell late-bred cows or late calving pairs with no excuses. In other words, if they are bred or calve “late,” you sell them. “Late” is determined by how many you need to sell to use your carrying capacity for the year and make room for the bred replacements. That gives you wonderful flexibility for drought management and other situation that require you to reduce numbers. You can calve for 30, 45, 60 days or any number and then group the later calving ones as a sale group. For a number of years, we sold everything that did not calve in the first 30 days regardless of age. As a result of that and a short heifer-breeding season, about 87% calved in the first 30 days and very few of the sale cows sold as open cows.
     
  11. None of this works without low-cost, low-input heifer development. But then, I’m not sure ranching works without low-cost, low-input heifer development. Cowherd profitability starts with a low-cost bred yearling heifer and ends with a good sale of that cow later in her life. If you take care of that, what happens in between will usually take care of itself. If you have the observation skills for range and cattle to successfully use minimal development on your heifers, you will surely be doing a good job with your cows and keeping cost down. Selling your market cows effectively will take some work, but the economic leverage of selling bred cows for a premium over open cows can be big. Most of the difference drops straight to the bottom line. The only added cost is your selling effort. A high percentage of your market cows will be younger cows.  Once some of the people nearby who are, or should be, terminal crossing find out what you have for sale, they should be anxious to talk to you.
     
  12. Occasionally I hear of people who don’t calve heifers until they are three years old.  That wastes a year of costs. The typical reasons are difficulty in getting good conception rates in yearling and/or two-year-old heifers when first breeding as yearlings. Some also are fearful of calving difficulties in the two year olds. If this is happening to you, I would suggest that the cattle aren’t well adapted to your environment or that a little well-timed and strategic protein and mineral supplementation might solve your problem. Again, many cows are genetically too big, want to give too much milk and don’t have enough heterosis (hybrid vigor) to adapt to low-cost environments. 
     
  13. Don’t change the environment to fit the cow. Change the cow. Perhaps a little, strategically timed supplementation to take off the very rough edges of the environment can be a very wise investment of time and money.

I hope this helps you see the close interconnectedness of grazing management and soil health, replacement heifer development and selection, calving date, fitting cows to the environment, calving in a short window, selling bred versus selling open cows and calving every year for you or a customer. When these things are put together properly for your ranch in your location, you will find improved profitability.

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