Going Against The Grain

Bill Roden goes against the local grain in claving routine.

Bill Roden goes against the local grain in calving routine. For the Cholame, CA, producer, that means winter calving on his Southern California Coastal Highlands ranch.

The region boasts rolling grass, forb-covered mountains and a relatively mild, year-round climate that can easily give way to severe late-summer and fall dry spells. Unlike his neighbors, Roden doesn't raise grain, so he doesn't have crop residues for fall-winter forage.

If he were to calve in the fall, Roden would have bulls out at what's often the worst possible time. He'd then be forced to feed hay to get his cows in breeding shape and maintain them well into gestation. Instead, he breeds in the spring for winter calving. Thus, he doesn't feed a lick of hay.

“We have one shot at hitting a ‘season’ here — from about February through May. It's very rare to have green forages after July 1 until February,” Roden says. “It doesn't pay for us to feed all that hay. We let them get ‘hot’ feed the easy way; let them graze it when they need it the most.”

The system puts Roden's calves on the ground in a narrow, early February to early March window. Any money spent on feed is for supplements normally fed in December and into January. “That's the toughest time of year on our cows,” he says.

A key to Roden's grazing management is filaree (Erodium cicutarium), a nutritious winter annual forb that peaks in feed value in late April (just in time for Roden's cows' first and second heat cycles) and remains high in nutrition into August.

As soon as calves are big enough to get along without their mothers, Roden starts thinking about weaning. This flexibility is the trump card of his overall management.

“The best thing I ever did was quit worrying about weaning weight,” he says. “The next best thing was when I quit selling my calves at weaning.”

With a flexible weaning regime, he can manage his forages with his own calves as they age into yearlings. And, in good years, he can bring in outside cattle, he says. By not being stuck in a weaning rut, he can also manage his marketing — usually selling 700-800-lb. feeders to south-central California feeders.

Roden's goal was once to wean a 500-lb. calf at five months of age. With better genetics matched up with changes in season of calving, he's reached that goal.

“By changing calving season we've evolved into a very flexible system that makes the best use of our green feed,” he says. “It's working well all the way around.”