Wintering Calves With Their Mamas Means Healthier Calves

By calving later in the spring and wintering those calves with their mothers, three North Dakota producers say they develop healthier, heavier calves at less cost.

October 27, 2013

10 Min Read
Wintering Calves With Their Mamas Means Healthier Calves

Many stockmen are calving later in the year: April, May or June. Doing so offers the advantages of green grass and no need for harvested forage at a time when the cow’s nutritional needs are peaking, due to lactation.

But along with later calving typically comes later weaning. Some producers are choosing to winter calves with the cows, and wean at about 10 months of age in late February, March or early April to avoid early winter’s harsh weather.

North Dakota stories

Nick Faulkner of the Ruso Ranch near Garrison, ND, has wintered calves with their mothers for six years. The ranch weans calves two months before their dams are due to calve again.

“We calve 250 cows in late April, and it’s worked very well for us. We don’t have to give vaccinations for scours or other calf diseases,” he says. Plus, warm-weather calving on its own poses fewer problems for calves. And being on mother’s milk through winter, without the stress of weaning, seems to help keep calves healthy.

Faulkner monitors body condition on his cows in order to cull those unable to handle winter nursing. But he says his feeding program keeps most of them in good shape. That includes use of cover crops and haying. Even if some cows lose a little weight, most of them bounce back before calving, he adds.

“Wintering pairs together simplifies our winter feeding program. My father-in-law raised corn for silage for 30 years, and we no longer raise corn. We do more haying, but the calves go through winter much better on the cows than they do being weaned,” he says.

Faulkner retains his calves after weaning, running them as yearlings on grass and selling them in the fall. He says calves weaned in late February really bloom when they hit the grass. “The calves aren’t stressed at all by weaning, and about half are already weaned by their mothers,” he says.

He explains the calves learn eating habits from their mothers. “The longer you can keep them with their mothers, the better the calves will do,” he says.

Faulkner likes the low stress of fence-line weaning. “Within three days after we separate the pairs, few still bellow, and the calves are so content that they don’t care where they are.”

Jay and Krista Reiser of Washburn, ND, calve in May and June, winter the calves with their dams, and wean late in the following March, using fence-line weaning. The Reisers have always run their heifers with the cowherd, allowing them to learn from their mothers how to winter-graze, graze through snow, seek wind shelter, etc. “They get some smarts from the cows,” Krista says.

In previous years, the Reisers  sold all calves but the replacement heifers off the cows. The heifers are weaned using nose flaps, which allows them to stay at their mother’s side. Last fall, however, they kept all their calves on the cows through the winter, and fence-line weaned in the spring.

“We wanted to keep the calves on the cows longer, partly to allow the rumen to develop more fully before weaning. We heard Gearld Fry, an Arkansas stockman who has studied cattle nutrition and genetics for many years, speak at the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Winter Workshop in February 2012. He told about research indicating it takes nearly 10 months for the rumen to develop to optimum potential for digesting forage. He thinks the beef industry is shortchanging itself with early weaning and putting calves on grain,” Jay says.


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Another reason for leaving calves on the cows is the ease, as well as the savings of time and labor. “We wanted to run just one herd though winter, and let the cows worry about the calves. We didn’t have to treat any for sickness. When we did fence-line weaning in March, the weather was starting to get nice, and it was so easy,” Jay says.

Faulkner says he’s cutting winter feed costs. “We still run tractors but we’re doing a lot of bale-grazing, trying to reduce costs. With later weaning, the calves are eating with the cows — whether bale-grazing or pasture-grazing — rather than waiting for the truck to bring feed,” he says.

“We want our cattle to work for us, rather than us working for them. The biggest thing I’ve noticed about the later weaning is how much easier it is for all of us. We are having fewer problems and less sickness,” he says.

Plus, he adds, the former corn acreage converted to forage production is producing a high-quality grass without the expense of growing and feeding silage or grain.

Krista Reiser says that from a labor and fuel standpoint, keeping calves on the cows rather than feeding two groups saves money. She admits, however, that the decision to wean calves and feed them separately or keep them with the cows depends on the situation.

The important thing, she says, is to weigh the income and outflow. If you can save enough money on winter feeding costs and labor, it doesn’t matter if the calves aren’t gaining to full potential during winter, she believes, as they make up for it on grass the next spring. “In today’s world, a person may be better off with a little less gain at that point in the calf’s life and a lot less expense,” she says.

Because the husband-wife team weigh their calves, they have the numbers to support their management choice.

“When we weaned replacement heifers in late November and ran them with the herd as weaned calves, those heifers were only gaining 0.25 lb./day. This past year, leaving all the calves on the cows and bale-grazing until March, the heifers averaged about 1 lb./day,” Krista says. She surmises that, in past years, the pecking order affected the calves and they didn’t do as well competing with the cows. Last winter, that little bit of milk in their diet helped a lot.

It was interesting to see the difference in calf size from the same cow. “The full-blood siblings were 80-100 lbs. heavier than the calves from the year before. It was the same genetics; the only thing we changed was leaving them on the cow,” she says.

Bale grazing pairs

Ken Miller has been bale-grazing cow-calf pairs through winter the past four years on his ranch south of Bismarck, ND. “Two of those years we had about 100 in. of snow, and it still worked fine,” he says.

He usually put out a week’s worth of baled feed at different locations, moving the cattle to the next bunch of bales, rather than hauling feed. In the past four winters, Miller says he’s used less than 100 gals. of diesel fuel in his tractor to feed 100 pairs. 

“Some people think calves won’t perform well in very cold weather, but they do quite well when wintered with their mothers on hay. We wean in late March. Since we don’t calve until late May and early June, the cows have adequate time to recover.”

When the calves are weaned, Miller feeds them apart from the cows for a month, still bale-grazing. He just trails the cows home, leaving several older cows with the calves. He bands the bull calves and puts the calves back with the cows, so everything can be run as one herd.

“Calving in May and June limits a person to selling light calves if you’re marketing them in November. But if you leave them on the cows, run them on grass the next year and sell them in August or September, they’re a good weight, and you don’t have much feed investment in that animal,” Miller says.

He used to calve in February and March, wean calves in late October and background them, and sell them in January and February. But he realized he’d invested a lot of feed and fuel in them over that time.

A person sometimes has to adapt ideas to fit his own conditions, Miller says. “If you get locked into doing things a certain way just because that’s the way you’ve always done it, you’re liable to miss some opportunities.”

Following nature

Gearld Fry, an Arkansas stockman who has studied cattle nutrition and genetics for many years, says a calf develops a more efficient rumen if it can nurse from its mother until about 10 months of age.

“To become most efficient at digesting forage, a calf needs to stay on his mother so the rumen can develop to optimum potential. The cow’s butterfat enables the villi in the rumen to fully develop. If the calf doesn’t get the butterfat for 10 months, he is inferior in his digestive ability to what his genetics would dictate,” Fry explains.

Fry says no man-made supplement can equal what the cow will give the calf. “The dam’s milk is specifically designed for that calf.” And, he says, Mother Nature programmed cattle — like bison — to spend the first winter with their mothers.

“You can’t do as much for that calf as its mother can. Even at the expense of her body condition, you’re better off to let her feed her calf. If she isn’t calving again until May or June, it doesn’t matter if she loses 200-300 lbs. from summer weight. If she has 45 days of green grass before calving again, she will put on enough body condition to have a healthy calf, and rebreed within about 85 days,” he explains.

“In the lactating cow during the dead of winter, most of the fluid from her udder is butterfat,” Fry says. She is giving less volume than she would on green grass, but the quality is very high.

“Bison are the most closely related wild animal today to our cattle, with nine-month gestation. They have their babies in April or May, and breed back quickly. If we imitate nature and let the calf stay at Mother’s side through winter, all she needs is 45 days to dry off and prepare for the next calf with adequate colostrum, and then breed back,” Fry says.

Fry uses electric fence to creep-feed calves in winter. “I put a bale of my best hay where I can let the calves get to it and the cows can’t. The calf is old enough to be ruminating well by that time,” Fry says. Calves don’t need grain, but they do need good-quality forage.

“There are other ways to creep-feed a calf without using grain. A New Hampshire stockman has a 20-acre field of triticale for calves to graze. Even though it gets bitterly cold in New Hampshire, his calves do very well left on the cows.

“He gets a lot of growth on the triticale before freezing weather, and uses electric fence to keep cows out. The calves go under that fence to graze the triticale all winter. It is incredible how good those calves look. They had their mothers, and good grazing — the best of both worlds.”

Heather Smith Thomas is a rancher and freelance writer based in Salmon, ID.


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