Our Journey as Producers of Fleckvieh Simmental Cattle.

The Essential 12: The Twelve Week Period that Shapes our Program

With all due respect to the other nine months of the year, our purebred operation has twelve magical, stressful, exhausting and faith affirming weeks that are essential to the success of our program.  Twelve weeks of heavy lifting.  Twelve weeks which are an intricate dance to try and balance all of the things that are required to get done.  It starts with calving in January; ends with our herd sires being turned out in late March. And in the interim, bulls are marketed.  New genetics acquired. And a twelve week cycle closes for another year.

As long as I can remember, Jan 1 has always signaled the start of the calving season for purebred beef producers.  If I recall correctly, the date may have originally aligned with cattle shows and class age groups.  Now, I think there are also economic reasons, as Fleckvieh bulls can be mature enough and ready to work at 13 months, so from a cost perspective it makes sense to get bulls marketed as quickly as possible.  As purebred bull sales seem to creep earlier in the year, it does seem like calving has also shifted a bit earlier – and for the last few years, ‘age advantage’ bulls, whether fall or summer born, did appear to be very popular with buyers. Nevertheless, January 1st remains a key date for the bulk of purebred breeders to start their calving season. 

Our own situation has fluctuated a little bit over the years.  When we were first building Applecross Cattle, both of us worked off farm.  We decided to move calving into late December to align with Jeanne’s Christmas break from teaching school – there is just simply so much less stress when one of us can be around and available to monitor calving.  The last couple of years, Jeanne has (willingly) returned to the farm full time, which allows us more flexibility and a return to scheduling Jan 1 as the start of calving (if only the cows would co-operate!)  Unsurprisingly, one advantage of the Covid pandemic was that I was home a fair bit for the past couple years –  but with a job that has returned to being primarily office based, I utilize some vacation days to allow us both to be home during (what we think is going to be) peak calving.  Weather conditions can certainly dictate calving hours, but having the ability to ‘trade off’ night checks with a partner is certainly an energy saver!  And that is the primary conundrum with calving cows.  Sure tech (cameras) and modern facilities (barns) can help, but the manual labour required to check and be available for those ‘what if’s’ simply cannot be replaced by increased automation.   

We have also had to overcome an initial goal of being perfect.  Part of the decision for Jeanne to stop teaching school and be at the farm full time was the thought that having her here would allow us to ‘save’ more calves; both right at calving and during their vulnerable first six weeks of life.  And, more purebred calves would potentially translate into substantially more revenue; at least partly offsetting the loss of her teacher salary.   Nature happens during calving; and could be as simple as having a calf born with a sack over its head, or malpresentation that requires intervention.  The challenge becomes the difference between being available to assist vs. the ability to successfully resolve all of nature’s challenges.  Anyone who knows Jeanne would know she is a perfectionist (how that translates into choosing me is still a real mystery).  So her goal is 100% success during every calving season.  And, frankly, while I am sure that is the goal of all producers, the reality of calving and calf-rearing is that nature is complex, and sometimes ‘stuff’ just happens.   What made it more difficult for us was that, for that first year, Jeanne did it!  We enjoyed 100% calving success.  The next year, when our vet was visiting due to an uncertain diagnosis on a young calf, he just laughed and suggested that 100% would probably never ever happen again in our career.  And it hasn’t.  And I think that has been really tough on Jeanne (and on all ranchers that lose calves).  We always second guess.  There are always things we could have done differently.  What has helped is some sharing and making an effort to ensure we talk to fellow producers.  Realizing that calving isn’t always the sunshine and rainbows and positive vibes that may be showcased on social media.  We love being positive and sharing those ‘miracle’ stories.  But being reminded that we all have similar struggles, we all lose calves, can also be reaffirming.  We aren’t terrible at what we do – and that others face challenges too.  We can’t be perfect. We can only do our best and keep learning; and that has to be enough.

One of the other things we have learned over the years, is that a good start for each calf is essential.  It isn’t just that we need to invest time with the cows that are calving; but also ensuring that the newborn calves continue to tick along, and not take a step backwards.  So while we are walking the cows looking for signs of early stage labour, we also try to ensure the calves are looking as they should as well.  We may not see a calf nurse for 3 days…and then see that same calf nursing 3 times in the next 12 hours.  How can you determine ‘normal’ if there isn’t a regular reference point for comparison?   Jeanne and I also observe different things (Jeanne is typically more detail oriented).  We both have favourites we look for – and they are different favourites!  But one thing we have really learned is that early treatment is much easier than late treatment (and that preventative treatment may be the best of all!)  Jeanne is also a meticulous record keeper – which is also important during the ‘fog’ of calving.  “What day did we treat that calf?” is a lot easier to answer when it is written down!   The other advantage of having a great record keeper in the house is that it creates data.  Data that can be analyzed!  (and from the guy that already has 11 tabs on his ‘cattle’ spreadsheet, why not an even dozen!)  We have really started to be curious if there is a correlation/causation between a calf that may need to be treated early on in life and whether there is impact on scrotal size or a semen test.  It would be a neat project – and I am not sure if our smaller numbers allow us sufficient sample size to definitively prove anything – but it seems like an interesting theory to test – just not during the essential 12 weeks!  In any event, we have certainly found that it is more than just calving cows that is important; those slow walks through the pen checking to see if the calves are acting as they should, repay that extra time investment in spades.

It always seems that just as we hit peak calving (and peak calving stress), we need to be clipping and then picturing bulls for our early March bull sale.  Every year it feels like there are more bulls for sale in Central Alberta and fewer commercial cows to breed them to.  Even narrowing it down to our piece of the Simmental Breed (Fleckvieh), we are aware that more than 200 bulls sell within just a 60km radius and a two week sale window.  Our customers have choices!  So we need to ensure our bulls are ‘ready’.  They need to look the part, be clipped and presented, and then pictured approximately two months before the sale; just to ensure the catalog is ready to be mailed in time.  The Red Deer County Bull Sale is a consignment sale, and we have been fortunate to work with most of the same group for quite a number of years – so we know how the bulls need to show up on sale day, in order to ‘fit in’ with the rest of the sale.  We also spend a significant amount of time trying to get pictures that showcase what we see in each bull – which is not an easy task! (we know one couple that refers to bull picture taking day as D-I-V-O-R-C-E).  To reduce this stress, we have been fortunate enough to convince Stefon Beechinor and McKenzie Stout to picture bulls for us the last few years.  By bringing in trusted help that we know are as meticulous as we are, it certainly makes the work load easier, and allows us to keep our focus on the calving barn.  We also spend a fair bit of time deciding catalog order, as well as which bulls should get a little more space.  Jeanne and I readily debate the merits of a ‘feature’ (she thinks all the bulls are good, and that buyers will decide who the best bulls are), while I am detail oriented (anal) enough, to know which bull I want catalogued on the top of the right hand side of page 10.    It also leads to an interesting conversation on ‘best’ vs. ‘most marketable’ which is probably worth a blog post on another day.  All of this ‘bull sale prep’ is essential to the success (and cash flow) of our operation.  It just happens to fall on top of what is already a very hectic calving schedule!

Probably the most important, and stressful, day for us, is the day we semen test the sale bulls.  We feel/hope we do everything correctly, from birth through weaning and development to maximize each animals’ potential.  But a pass/no pass or a bull that doesn’t measure up, can move a high profile bull to the meat ring in a hurry.  And to be honest, we (as a breed) are pretty demanding with our bulls.  At only 12-14 months of age, we are expecting them  to be considered mature enough to breed cows.  That early maturing standard, specifically when it comes to scrotal size, has evolved over the years, where bigger is typically better, regardless of breed averages.  But success (or failure) on semen test day, can add another dimension of stress on top of calving, and constant re-evaluation of both our management program and our genetic selection.  We always do our initial test early enough that there is room for a ‘just in time’ re-test two weeks later, just before sale day, but there is always a sense of relief when bulls have passed that hurdle (and hopefully measured up!).  We just wonder WHY it somehow always has to be -35 on semen test day.  I am sure our vet does too! 

While we are wrapping up calving and getting ready for our own bull sale, we are also knee deep in genetic selection.  What we are looking for every year is a bit different; but after missing out on any bulls last year, we knew that adding a new walking bull in 2023 was a priority.  The advantage of having a smaller program is that we really only have the numbers to focus on a few things.  We want to be known for moderate calving, polled cattle.  We also believe we have a 100% Fleckvieh herd; so it makes sense to stick to those genetics if at all possible, as that 100% status does matter to the international community.  So bulls that meet those requirements, and are at least somewhat outcross to our herd base, make it to the ‘shortlist’ of bulls that require further investigation.  We are also more comfortable, when making a sizeable investment, seeing the bulls in person.  And this can be a challenge when we are both calving our own cows and prepping our own bulls!  We have bought animals sight unseen in the past; but walking a bull, and ‘liking them’ in person, regardless of their picture or pedigree certainly provides more ‘comfort’, when making such a large investment.  So it may not be a surprise that we ended up acquiring two bulls within that aforementioned 60km radius.  I knew the bulls.  I knew the cow families.  And they both add what we think is both ‘better’ and ‘different’ to our walking bull line up.  Adding new walking bulls is always stressful but fun – finding them and getting them bought are always two different things – but having a successful acquisition year like we did in 2023, certainly has us dreaming of some rather neat future genetic combinations.  

With our small herd, we are also fortunate to be able to continue to leverage AI within our program, which allows us to add both outcross and highly regarded genetics to our herd. Every year, we sync both a group of cows and the bulk of our yearling heifers in late March.  We like to AI our ‘sale heifers’, as we feel we have more proven calving options with AI than with our own bulls. It is important to us that our sale heifers calve out for their new owners, so a proven calving ease bull will increase the odds that an animal that may have been trucked a distance and is now in unfamiliar surroundings, at least (hopefully) calves out.  It also allows us to add some different genetics and dabble in a new bloodline without making the same financial commitment as in a walking bull.  Establishing different genetic lines to weave into a program is probably more art than science; but even with three walking bulls that we are pretty excited about, we still wanted to add a few more twists to our 2024 calf crop.

The final piece in genetic selection during these crazy twelve weeks is the cowherd itself.  Jeanne takes a lot of notes (it is almost as if she’s a teacher!), specifically around how the cow calves, how quickly the calf is up, and whether it drinks on its own.  Certainly the sire choice can have an impact in all of these areas, but the cow is the other half of the equation.  There is nothing better than a heifer that has a calf unassisted, who then gets up and drinks without any sort of assistance at -40.  It is also important to be reminded if a cow is over protective and won’t let you go in a pen.  Or if the teat or udder shape means that the calf has problems and intervention is needed.  We need to multiply great traits in our cattle; and attitude and udders are two things we have really focused on now that we have our numbers where we want them.  As my dad would say, “there is no cow in the world worth getting hurt over”, so no matter how ‘great’ that cow looks (or produces), she can’t stay long.  Which leads to the creation of a fourth ‘breeding’ group; our ‘open’ pen.  Cows that we know will be going in the fall.  Cows held open for a reason while the rationale is still fresh in our minds.  So I can’t change it when I see how great that calf looks at weaning, and suggest ‘that cow couldn’t have been that bad – let’s try her one more year’.  Those maternal traits are important.  And important to get right during that window of up close attention.

The twelve week cycle I have just gone through is pretty similar, I think, for most purebred operations.  In our case though, it extends to 14 weeks when we include our late December female sale at Fleckvieh Equation.  The sale has its own set of prep work involved but, knowing the journey we have in front of us, we are cognizant to at least take a couple of days after Equation for ‘downtime’, so that we can relax and unwind, prior to gearing right back up again for an extended twelve week sprint.  From a budgeting perspective, having one of the last heifer sales of the season as well as having one of the later bull sale dates, typically inverts our planning, as we are typically looking to acquire genetics before knowing what our own are going to sell for.  So to solve that problem, we typically budget ‘backwards’, and leverage the results of our heifer sales to make our bull buying budget, and our bull sales shape our investment in a high end heifer or two the following fall.  Cash flow in the cow calf sector is very cyclical, and liquidity to handle bumps is so important, that being able to act on the opportunity to add genetics when they come available does take a little forward planning.  There is enough stress in those twelve weeks, that making sure that we have our budget in place for bull buying means one less thing to worry about.

So those are the 12 (or fourteen) weeks.  Heifer Sale. Calving.  Bull Sale. Breeding Season.  Slammed together back to back to back to back; from late December to the end of March.  This is the reason we are all so exhausted once the bulls are turned out and the calendar flips to April (Also why we plan an April off farm vacation every spring just to recharge and relax). But also the reason we do this.  Our twelve weeks certainly aren’t all negative.  There are moments of tremendous satisfaction – a successful intervention when outlooks were uncertain – or simply a pause of quiet awe when the 2am check is so still, and a cow is calving just as nature intended.  It is also our opportunity to put ideas into action and to solve genetic puzzles.  Sometime we may make mistakes, but we do learn from them.  We can move our genetics forward, and then watch plans develop for the next nine months until we can do it again.   It is the dance we choose.  And we wouldn’t do any other.

Until Next Time,



One response

  1. john wolfe

    you missed your calling Dennis. You should be an author for a fkeckviek book.

    May 23, 2023 at 1:26 pm

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