2015 September Update
This past week-end it was time to process cattle. We pulled hair for genetic testing, took weaning weights, tattooed and started the quiet wean processing for all of our 2015 calves, and then vaccinated every animal on the farm. We had noticed that our weaning weights had declined the past couple of years – so we consciously made some changes to our management program this year. Considering the challenging year for pasture conditions, we were quite pleased with the weaning weights, as the bull calf group all weaned off between 720lbs and 920lbs – right where I think they should be – especially after the weights for the younger bulls get adjusted for age. As I think about what made this year ‘successful’, I took time to reflect on some of the management changes we made for 2015 and tried to determine which decisions made the difference.
One of the thoughts I had on our declining performance, was that maybe our stocking rates had got too high, leading to the decrease in weights both at weaning and on sale day. As our cow herd had been in growth mode since its inception 9 years ago, I thought that maybe our numbers had outgrown our pasture. So last fall, we took advantage of strong cattle prices and culled hard – we sent 1/3 of our cow herd to market. While this will be partially offset by a large group of bred heifers coming in to replace them this fall, we thought the overall reduction in numbers would significantly help our pastures while also strengthen the quality of our cow herd.
I also made sure we had sufficient feed so that we could delay turnout an extra week this spring. Growing up in Ontario, we always turned cows out May long week-end, but our later start to spring in Alberta has made an adjustment in this area a necessity. We had traditionally pushed it back a bit, but this year we ensured we gave it that extra week – which turned to a no-brainer when faced with the combination of lack of moisture with sufficient feed on hand. While I hated to see the cows stuck in paddocks another week (and based on the vocal audience I had when fixing fence this spring, I know they did, too), I think delaying the start of grazing until the pasture was more established was the right decision.
As I have blogged before, we actively rotationally graze, and in 2014 we ‘finished’ (fencing is never done) creating the final paddocks on our home quarter. We now have separate rotations for each of our three groups – bred heifers, cows with bull calves, and cows with heifer calves. The groups are moved every 5 or 6 days and the research suggests that the grass quality and quantity will gradually improve over time. As we have installed and implemented our grazing program on a gradual basis over the past six years, it is difficult to ‘see’ immediate improvement, but from a long term perspective, we should have healthier, more productive grass. And it is nice to be ‘done’ stringing wire creating paddocks at home.
It has been well documented that growing conditions have been a challenge in Alberta this year. We had virtually no moisture from mid-May to mid July, which led pastures to suffer and provided limited re-growth. August, in what is usually a dry month, has been wet, with our soil often becoming saturated. As harvest starts around us, the grass we do have is still green, and (despite an early frost) we hope it will stay that way deep into September.
Notwithstanding of this year’s drought, we have been fortunate on the pasture front – as we were successful in purchasing the adjoining grass quarter in July. While we didn’t get a full year of usage, being able to add it to our rotation certainly eased the pressure on our home quarter, and should allow us to pasture the cows (dependant on snowfall) right through to December. There has been a lot more wire to string as we try to implement a rotational grazing program ‘on the fly’, and I am cognizant to keep future stocking rates in my mind as we determine how best to utilize the additional grass, but it has truly been a blessing to be able to acquire the land next door for years to come. The purchase wasn’t exactly planned for, but was one we were prepared for, which create a great outlet valve to release grazing pressure the weather had otherwise produced on our home quarter.
Another management decision we made was to gradually introduce a transition creep ration to the bull calf group. We have historically been hesitant to creep feed, both from a desire to ensure the dams are measured on their individual milking ability, but also from a logistical perspective in trying to control their intake while the cattle are managed within a rotational grazing system. When touring around a number of herds, we had discussed the pros/cons of feeding creep with fellow breeders, with it being unanimous that getting bull calves on at least partial feed prior to the start of weaning substantially eased the transition. The logistics came together at our place thanks to one thing: water. We are firm believers in the importance of maintaining water quality for each of the cow groups, and have gradually fenced the cows out of all the slough areas on the farm. The well water source for the bull calf group is in the yard, so no matter what paddock they are in, they need to come up to the yard for water and mineral. Recognizing this, we were able to create a creep area that allowed for controlled feeding. Starting mid-July, the group were pail fed roughly 1 lb of formulated pellet per day, increasing to 2 lbs Aug 1, and 3 lbs for the past 2 weeks. While the big calves in the group can boss their way around and eat a little more, we did ensure there was enough bunk space for all of them. It isn’t much supplement, as we still wanted them to do as much ‘work’ as possible on their respective dams, but we are hopeful that the new transition strategy will pay off. This test is still to come, as hopefully with the quiet weans in, the switch to a diet of pellets and hay will be substantially easier, and they will continue to gain weight as they adapt to the different diet.
The final thing that changed in 2015 was the use of some different genetics. From a breeding philosophy perspective, our program is focused on moderating birth weights while trying to maintain the legendary performance Fleckvieh is known for. We are also gradually introducing the polled gene to our herd. We have used various combinations and permutations of genetics we like over the last number of years, without significant variance, but are always looking to incorporate different genetics that meet those breeding objectives. 2015 saw the first calves born from FGAF WowEffect, the exciting new sire that Dad selected for Dora Lee as his choice of the Gagnon bull calves back in 2013. We were drawn to the JB Kananaskis cow family when we saw her at the Hiemstra dispersal, so it was exciting for us to obtain an exclusive semen interest on a son. ‘Wow’s’ EPDs were certainly impressive, and while backed by a power dam, his 92lb birth weight, made him an ideal fit for our herd (at least on paper). In order to get an idea of what he could produce, we took the opportunity to utilize him on a cross section of different (but all proven) cow families. We have not been disappointed. The ‘Wow’ calves weaned off at the top of their respective groups, and are easily identifiable in the pasture. While their BWs do vary (as they should) along with the size of their dam, their performance has been consistent across the board. The early look suggested we breed a larger group back to him this year, so we are anticipating a bigger, even more diverse group of calves in 2016.
So with processing done, and the results of the summer now measured and down on paper, the question I posed at the top remains – we are happy with our results – but which management decisions made the difference? I think the answer is twofold: planning/preparing and balancing short/long term decisions. We knew our pastures were getting abused, so we proactively cut numbers and extended our feeding season before turnout. We didn’t plan on acquiring more land or to suffer through 2 months of drought, but we were prepared if it happened, and could adapt accordingly. And finally – improving rotational grazing or introducing new genetics aren’t a one year fix, but hopefully will provide extended benefits over time. Given our industry’s reliance on weather, I think having a lot of different levers that can be utilized to adjust on the fly, that can be shifted based on what nature gives you each year, may be the solution. And as far as what next year might bring, I don’t think purebred breeders are ever satisfied (our whole reason for being revolves around improvement), so I am sure our management program will continue to evolve and adapt dependant on what each year brings.
Before closing, I did want to provide an update on our upcoming marketing plans. With an almost 3:1 bull to heifer calf ratio in 2015, we currently have our largest, deepest and most diverse group of herd bull prospects in development. We are wintering 9 bull calves (8 polled), that include some really neat individuals (including 4 WowEffect sons) that we are really excited about. More information and pictures will be provided as they develop this winter. On the female front, we have a bumper bred heifer group, from which we plan on selecting 6 for Fleckvieh Equation in December. The downside of 3:1 bull calves is that our heifer calves are down in numbers – but this also presents an opportunity to potentially acquire some outcross genetics via purebred sales over the next year.
You deal with the hand nature deals you, but hopefully we have enough management levers we can utilize to give us the results we are after.
Until next time,