Traditional cow-calf management has been to calve in spring and wean in fall, which works for ranchers who calve in February or March, or seedstock producers who calve in January to have bull calves old enough as yearlings for an early-spring bull sale.
Today, however, more producers are trying to calve in sync with nature, calving later on green grass. This puts calving at a time when cows and calves don’t need hay, and the weather is better for newborns.
But then comes the question of when to wean the calves? Calving in May or June works great, but calves are a bit young for traditional weaning in October or November. So, some producers are leaving calves with the cows into winter and weaning in midwinter or as late as March. This necessitates different management strategies.
Ken Miller has been bale-grazing 150 cow-calf pairs through winter for nine years in south-central North Dakota, near Bismarck. “I feed some high-quality hay along with some coarse hay,” he says.
The cattle eat some of the poorer hay to add fiber to their diet and trample and bed on the rest. These bale-grazed areas are more fertile and productive as pasture in following years, and the cow-calf pairs do very well wintering this way.
“Some people think that when it’s cold, the calves won’t perform well, wintered with their mothers on hay — but they do quite well. We wean in late March,” Miller says. “Since we don’t calve until late May or early June, the cows have adequate time to recover.”
To wean, he trails pairs home and locks the calves in a large pen for three days, adjacent to the cows through the fence in the next pen and leaving several older cows with the calves.
“Then I move the calves to the north side of the trees, and the cows go back to the bale-grazing pasture,” Miller says.
There is no stress to the calves being weaned at about 10 months; they don’t miss their mothers at all, he says. Some have already been weaned by the cows.
“The calves go to bale grazing again on the north side of the yard. The cows do more bellowing than the calves, but only for a day or so.” When the calves are weaned, he keeps them separate from the cows for about a month, still bale grazing
“You can’t do this if you are calving really early, like February, but calving in May or June, our cows don’t have to be in top shape through winter. Even if they’ve lost some body condition by the time we wean, they fatten up by calving time,” says Miller.
Weaning calves at a younger age, in late-fall or winter weather, generally results in more sickness. “I prefer to leave them on the cows. The calves learn from their mothers how to graze through snow, etc.”
Then there’s marketing. “Calving in May or June limits you to selling really light calves if you are marketing in November. But if you leave them on the cows and run them on grass the next year to sell in August or September, they are a good weight, and you don’t have much feed investment in that animal,” Miller says.
Cutting feed costs
Jay and Krista Reiser, who ranch near Washburn, N.D., started saving winter feed costs six years ago by wintering summer-born calves with the cows. From a time and labor standpoint, this made winter chores easier with just one herd (175 pairs) to deal with.
“The calves are born in May or June, and we wean in late March, with fence-line weaning,” says Krista. “After about four days, they stop bawling, and some don’t bawl at all. They are old enough that they are ready to wean,” she says. Most of the calves are more interested in the new hay than trying to find their mothers.
“We’ve always run our heifers with the cow herd, because we want them to learn from their mothers — how to winter-graze, where to go to get out of the wind, etc. They get some smarts from the cows,” she says.
When they first started trying to do low-stress weaning, they used nose flaps on the heifer calves, but had a few issues with ice buildup on the flaps when it got really cold. “Calving in May or June, the calves would have been too young if we’d put the flaps in earlier for weaning. Leaving calves on the cows was something we wanted to try in our program of keeping calves over as grass calves. It all fit together and made more sense to do it this way.”
In recent years, they’ve done fence-line weaning because it’s less labor — not having to run calves through twice. “After a few days, we just move the cows farther away. It depends on weather — usually sometime between Day 6 and 8. The calves seem like they could care less; it’s the cows that seem the most upset. They can see their calves, but they still bawl for a couple days. The calves are more interested in eating hay,” Krista says.
“We wean about March 10, but this year pushed it off until March 20 because we went on vacation and didn’t want our hired man to have to deal with weaning. We actually liked that better. By that time, some of the cows are starting to dry up and weaning the calves themselves. We watch the weather, because often we get some bad storms in March. We try to time weaning with the weather. We have not had to treat any sick calves from weaning.”
Working with nature
Art McElroy winters his calves with the cows on his farm near Frontier, Saskatchewan, 10 miles north of the U.S. border. He says working with Mother Nature is more fun than working against her.
Keeping calves on their mothers saves feed and labor, and it’s better than grain feeding to develop their rumens so they become good foragers. “At weaning, the calves go back out where the mothers were — half a mile from home, either grazing or bale-grazing — and the cows stay in the yard. The calves head back there and may hike back and forth a bit, but it’s very low-stress,” says McElroy.
By that age they don’t need milk, and the cows are not milking much. “I don’t know how much milk those calves are actually getting, and by that age they are more independent than a younger calf. They learned about grazing from Mom.”
After about a day and a half, he moves the cows completely away, and the emotional tie is not nearly as strong. “I think the stress of weaning is mainly breaking that tie,” he says.
“To separate them at weaning, all I do is put them in a corral, open a gate and let the cows go back out past me. With our stockmanship, they are all trained to walk past me. I let the cows go and stop the calves, and I can do this by myself.
“I put the cows in a nearby pen, and the calves go back where they grazed with their mothers. It’s a very quiet process compared to having a bunch of bawling cows and calves in your yard in the fall,” says McElroy.
Hard winter weather
Trevor and Cheryl Branvold raise registered Angus near Wawota, Saskatchewan. “Our winters are cold, and for many years we battled early calving, but holistic management showed us we don’t have to do it that way,” says Trevor.
“Currently we run 150 pairs and market 2-year-old bulls; we calve May or June, so we hold those bull calves over and sell them in March — just before they turn 2.
“We switched to May-June calving and this year weaned in February. We’re still trying to figure out the best time for weaning, because it’s still extremely cold, and the cows are still nursing calves when it’s cold.”
They had to get away from winter calving since it’s hard on newborns. The older calves, however, do very well wintering with their mothers.
“This year we tried something new, providing a creep area for the calves. It’s not for feeding grain — just a place they can get away from the cows and eat higher-quality hay. Our cows get a straw-based ration and grain pellets. The calves do better with higher-quality protein,” he says.
“We can bed them in the creep area during severe weather if we have to, but we have enough bush around that they generally have adequate shelter. They can go off with their mothers into the bush,” Trevor says.
The creep area is the home corral the cows come into for water and pellets. “We just put a creep gate in the gateway into another pen that’s about 200 by about 350 feet in size. We put hay bales and bedding in there for the calves to come and go as they wish.
“When we weaned them, we just closed the gate when we fed their hay, and they were all in there. They didn’t know anything different until they wanted to go back to their mothers, and the gate was closed,” he says.
This was very stress-free weaning; the calves were in a familiar place with familiar feed and hadn’t been stressed by being sorted. The cows were nearby, through the fence. This was just a different way of fence-line weaning and it worked very well, he says.
Smith Thomas is a rancher and freelance writer based in Salmon, Idaho.