A very wise Old Timer once said, “We can learn a lot from these old cows and horses.” So, I believe that we should “let the cows tell us” whether or not they fit our country. I also believe that if you have a bunch of cows that are 14 to 17 years old, they are the kind of cows that fit your country. On the other hand, if you cull cows as 10-year-olds, you’ll never know the kind of cows that fit your country because they are not allowed to express their full genetic potential.
I have worked with a ranch near Logan, N.M., for over 15 years, and there are 37 cows 14 to 17 years old in one pasture that have never missed a calf. In fact, they were 81% calved out in the first 30 days of calving, in a 90 day calving season. These cows were feed 27% protein, high-fat cubes at the rate of about 15% more than the running-age cows were fed. This ranch is not the toughest ranch I deal with, but it certainly is not an oasis. Average rainfall is 15 to 18 inches.
I believe there comes a time when an old cow will still breed, but her calf won’t be up to par with the rest of the calf crop. But as of the middle of June, these calves look to be as heavy as the calves across the fence on running-age cows. We won’t know for sure until they are weighed up at weaning.
There are a lot of management plans in place on ranches dealing with the age that cows are shipped. I have worked with a lot of clients in the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma Panhandle and New Mexico on longevity. I can’t address the other systems; they may be as profitable or even more profitable, but I do want to explain what we’re doing in detail to keep these old cows productive.
Before we do this, let’s assume that a cow is around six years old before she shows a profit. If cows are shipped as a 10 year old, 60% of her life is at a loss and only 40% of her life is at a profit. I’m not an economist and I may be looking at this all wrong. However, if we extend a cow’s productive life to age 15, those numbers are flipped and now the cow’s life is 60% at a profit and 40% at a loss. I believe we can extend her productive life beyond 15 years of age.
Probably the most important parts of my consulting with clients are related to becoming better stewards and “letting the cows tell us.” There is another aspect of this and that is to “Let the deer and antelope tell us, too.” Watch the bands of deer and antelope. When the does wean their fawns, the doe fawns stay with the does and the buck fawns are kicked off and form bachelor groups, but there are older bucks with them.
Nature provides leadership with wildlife and The Bible discusses leadership in Titus 2:4, which tells the older women to train the young women. By keeping old cows productive, the replacement heifers, first-calf heifers and even the second-calf heifers have leaders and they learn how to be cows, which helps them to become good leaders in the future.
Here are some of my thoughts about keeping old cows productive. The first thing to remember is that every ranch is different and every set of cows are different.
- Older cows need more feed than running-age cows.
- Put old cows with the second-calf heifers. They both need about 10% to 15% more feed than running-age cows and the second-calf heifers need leadership.
- Put the oldest cows with the first calf heifers. They both need about 15% to 20% more feed than running-age cows and the first calf heifers need leadership.
- Select replacement heifers, on the cow, from these “super cows” and not in the sorting alley where identity is lost. This applies to all replacement heifers, in my opinion.
- Broken-mouth cows are the critical class. They can’t graze properly with “gappie incisors.”
- Check teeth on all cows in the fall after about age seven.
- Sort off all broken-mouth cows and put them in a trap or pasture by themselves. (A large animal practitioner who had a tremendous experience with old cows once told me that a cow is in the broken-mouth stage from 6 to 12 months … never less, never more...before she goes into the smooth mouth stage.) These cows will need extra attention and maybe even a little alfalfa.
- Next year, a new set of broken-mouth cows go in this pasture and the ones leaving can go with the rest of the cows.
- Cattle graze new growth and re-growth. I have taken more grass samples over the last 20 years than anyone that I know of. I take them with my thumb and index finger and with a sideways motion tear the grass. Well, I know that a cow’s pallet and gums are tougher than my fingers. I once saw a cow chewing on a stalk of cholla cactus, just out of boredom, which was too stickery to handle with the bare hands.
- Smooth-mouth cows have no problem grazing.
- In the fall, cull cows for body condition. Hard-looking cows go no matter the age and cows in good body condition stay, even if they are old enough to vote.
I have spent a lot of time with the 14 to 17 year old cows mentioned at the beginning of the article, looking for longevity traits. No noticeable color patterns or hair swirl pattern were evident. The only things I noticed was that all 37 of the cows have moderate size udders, small teats and the teats were level with the ground, meaning no forward slope.
Every one of their heifer calves will picked for replacement heifers on the cow, not in the sorting alley. They are picked based on the cow, not the the actual heifer, because we are “letting the cows tell us” which animals really do fit our country. This all goes back to becoming a better steward of God’s land and cattle!
Editor’s note—Dan E. Gary is a ranch consultant and owner of Adobe Walls Nutrition in Amarillo, Texas.
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