The Nebraska Sandhills are known for productive, high-quality forage. And Lakeside, NE, Red Angus breeder Linda Andersen says, “The better we can manage our grass, the more economical we can be.”
Andersen, along with her daughter and son-in-law, Kim and Scott Ford, operate a 300- to 350-head herd they call Panhandle Cattle Co. in the rolling hills east of Alliance. Their ranch includes 5,000 acres of native range with some sub-irrigated meadows.
Until five years ago, their herd was split into spring and fall calving programs. This allowed them to get double use of their herd bulls “and we could offer older bulls in our annual February bull sale,” Andersen says.
At about that same time, Kim and Scott returned to help manage the ranch, but Scott also operates a second business off the ranch. “So it's often just Kim and I working the cattle,” Andersen says.
After some research, the trio realized that switching to a summer calving program could simplify labor, save $75/head on cow wintering costs and capitalize on forage quality as it peaked during the summer.
So they changed calving to May-June with weaning in November-December. Cows, which are bred and selected to be moderate and to fit the environment, are typically put back on native range through the winter where they receive only a protein supplement.
“That's worked well most years, but because of the drought and lack of grass this year, we've had to feed some hay to the cows,” Andersen reports.
Though calving now lands near haying season, Andersen says they contract to have their hay put up on the sub-irrigated meadows. By Sep. 1, the regrowth is ready to be grazed, so the lush pastures are used by the cows during breeding season.
Cows and heifers are artificially inseminated for one cycle before bulls are turned out. Heifers have a 45-day breeding season; cows a 60-day season.
With the switch to summer calving, Andersen says she's especially pleased with how healthy calves are from the get-go. “You rarely see a cow calving because they have them so fast and easy. The calves are really vigorous. You've got to tag them within 12 hours, or you won't catch them.”
The summer system also means they need minimal calving facilities. “On occasion, if a cow has difficulty calving, we'll use the head catch to pull a calf, but we don't need a big barn to house cows as they calve,” she says.
As far as marketing, Andersen says there are pros and cons to their May-June system. On the plus side, she says they like having the older bulls for their production sale in late February.
“This gives us more opportunity to see the bulls change as they get older. And, our customers have a two-year old by the time they turn bulls out in the spring,” she says.
But there are disadvantages.
“We recognize that carcass traits are becoming more important. But our cattle are on grass at one year of age, so they'd have very little backfat or expression of marbling if they were ultrasounded,” Andersen explains. “That's a drawback for our bull customers because we don't have that individual data available. But we do buy back some calves from our customers to get data, and we know they grade.”
Another drawback: “To sell bred heifers, we are out of synch with the rest of the world,” Andersen says. However, they have found a niche selling groups of replacement heifers. “They work into fall programs nicely,” she says.
Andersen says they plan to stay with their May-June calving system. “It's worked well for us. It comes down to quality of life at calving time, and for us it's pleasant not to have to deal with winter storms or sub-zero nights checking the herd,” she says.
Kindra Gordon is a freelance writer based in Spearfish, SD.