Image Credit: Alistair Paterson
Calving during the growing season is one of the most beneficial decisions you can ever make for your cow/calf herd. However, giving birth during the growing season means that your cows will give birth on pasture, right in the midst of your daily pasture rotation.
If you are raising cattle to give birth on pasture then you will need a completely different beef cattle management strategy than when your cows give birth in confined feed areas in late-winter or early-spring. With fences to move daily, tall grass for newborn to hide in, and warm sunshine making newborns almost impossible to catch within hours after they are born, you will need to redesign your calving strategy in order to deal with the challenges and opportunities of giving birth in the midst of a daily rotational grazing program.
In this article I am going to explain how to set up your calving program in a daily pasture rotation and how to manage your daily routine during this delicate season. You'll discover that with the help of the tips described in this article, raising cattle that give birth during the growing season is much easier, much less stressful, and much simpler for cow, calf, and farmer than managing a conventional cow/calf program that births outside of the growing season.
A quick note about the timing of the calving season discussed in this article: the ideal time for cows to begin giving birth during the growing season is several weeks after the beginning of the growing season to give your cows and heifers time to fatten up before they begin to give birth. They should reach a body condition of 7 on the 9-point BCS scale before they give birth. This timing matches is identical to the birthing season used by all wild grazing species, regardless of climate, right around the world. Always look at the date that the deer, moose, antelope or other wild grazing animals give birth in your area to help you identify the perfect timing for your cattle to give birth. Follow the links to read the separate related article where I explain in detail how to choose the perfect date for your cows to give birth in your area and to read more about the benefits of cattle giving birth during the growing season.
The easiest way to explain how to manage your cows' birthing season on pasture is by comparing conventional calving outside of the growing season versus calving on pasture during the growing season. This comparison will reveal many of the strategies that are required for birthing during the summer, on growing pasture, and how much simpler it is than giving birth outside of the growing season.
In a typical calving program outside of the growing season, cows are kept close to the barn so they can be closely observed via herd checks every 2-4 hours, 24 hours per day, for the duration of the entire birthing season. Many ranchers even use separate observation pens for cows that show signs of being ready to give birth. This strategy makes it easier for farmers to monitor for birthing difficulties and allows them to respond quickly if there is a problem.
→ When calving during the growing season there are significantly fewer birthing difficulties, as I explain in the article about the benefits of cattle giving birth during the growing season. Most ranchers whose cows give birth during the growing season find that frequent herd checks are simply not necessary because of the significant reduction in birthing difficulties. Cows can stay out on pasture throughout the birthing season and farmers can generally limit their herd checks to once per day at the same time as they move the cattle to the next slice of pasture in the grazing rotation.
When cows give birth during the growing season it produces such a dramatic drop in birthing difficulties that some ranchers even confidently let their cattle give birth out on range or in extensive government grazing leases far from home. They may not see their cows at all throughout the calving season! Many of these range-cattle won't see a human being until the snow pushes them back down out of the mountains in the late fall.
In a typical calving program outside of the growing season, cows that give birth are immediately separated from the rest of the cows that have not yet calved and moved to pens with other cows that have given birth. The cow/calf pairs are often further divided into similarly-aged groups to reduce disease transmission between newborns and calves that are already a few weeks old. Each group must be monitored daily to identify and treat diseases.
→ When calving during the growing season the weather is so warm and favorable that disease pressures are dramatically reduced. The warm weather combined with fresh daily pasture slices in the grazing rotation all but eliminates the nightmares of scours, coccidiosis, pneumonia, and other diseases that plague so many birthing programs outside of the growing season. Consequently, all the cattle can remain together in the same herd - cows that have not yet given birth, newborns, older calves, and even other age-groups like yearlings and grass-finishing animals can all remain joined as a single group.
Issues like calf-stealing, which are problematic outside of the growing season when cows give birth in confinement feed areas, also are not a problem in a daily pasture rotation because with fresh grass underfoot any cow that has not yet given birth is preoccupied with grazing when she's not bedded down chewing her cud. I will revisit the behavioral differences that arise within the herd when your cows give birth during growing season later in this article.
In a typical calving program outside of the growing season, sick calves and their mothers are quarantined to a separate pen or, in severe cases, directly to the barn where there is a veritable arsenal of veterinary equipment and tools standing by to prevent infectious diseases from spreading and provide the hands-on care required to nurse sick animals back to health. Unfortunately these barns and quarantine pens can become death traps for uninfected animals because the bacteria responsible for the diseases contaminate bedding and live on for months or years in the soil.
→ As I explained above, as well as in the article about the benefits of cattle giving birth during the growing season, when cows give birth during the growing season it significantly reduces the disease pressures faced by your cattle herd. Nonetheless, it is always a good idea to quarantine sick animals found on pasture to prevent contagion. This is as true among newborns with scours as among adult cattle with pink eye or any other case of infectious disease. In summer, an outdoor quarantine area on pasture, preferably managed as separate mini-grazing rotation, is the absolute best way to quarantine sick animals because they have lots of sunshine, fresh air, and fresh nutrient-rich grass.
Even though you still need to pre-plan your quarantine program to prepare for possible disease outbreaks, it's a simple fact that the risk of disease transmission during a pasture rotation is greatly reduced. The supply of fresh grass dramatically reduces oral-fecal contamination risks, especially when using a daily pasture rotation (I will explain how to set up the daily pasture rotation during the calving season later in this article). On pasture cattle will voluntarily avoid grazing any grass contaminated by manure. The sterilizing effect of the summer sun and warm weather also means that bacteria shed by sick animals quickly dries out and is killed by UV rays rather than being incorporated into muddy soil where they can remain a threat of re-infection for many years. The growing pasture underfoot also means that there is an active aggressive microbial community and lots of oxygen in the soil to help break down contagious bacteria shed by sick animals. And since the cattle are grazing, there is no shared feed bunk to increase the spread of disease through saliva.
The most obvious remaining areas for disease transmission in a rotational grazing scenario are at the mineral feeder and at the water trough (via saliva from infected animals), which is why it's still important to clean water troughs frequently and maintain a policy of quarantining sick animals whenever possible. But the significantly lower incidence of disease among newborns when cows give birth during the summer means that the complex paddock management system used by farmers birthing outside of the growing season is unnecessary.
In a typical calving program outside of the growing season, fresh bedding is provided daily to keep udders clean and provide the newborns with a warm place to bed down.
→ When calving during the growing season bedding is not only unnecessary, it's actually best to avoid it. On pasture there is always lots of space for cattle to lay down on fresh green grass wherever they want to. There's always a clean place to lay down somewhere. Bedding, on the other hand, creates a magnet that draws cattle close together. While a necessary evil when your cattle give birth outside of the growing season in order to protect newborns from puddles, mud, and cold snow banks, bedding is nonetheless a serious source of disease transmission as infected animals lie down next to uninfected animals and as the cattle jostle for position on manure-covered bedding sites. That manure will contaminate udders and spread disease to calves the next time they return to the teat for their next drink of milk. The warm weather during the growing season and the fresh clean sod mat of the pastures naturally eliminates the need for bedding as well as eliminating all the costs and labor associated with keeping the bedding clean and then subsequently removing and/or composting it when it is no longer needed.
The typical calving program outside of the growing season starts long before the pastures green up. Consequently, the nutritional needs at calving dictate that cattle birthing outside of the growing season are not able to winter graze without risk to their health and fertility. Unlike cattle that give birth during the growing season, these cattle will need to be on cattle feed rations throughout the winter months, which is best provided in feed bunks or in cattle feeders instead of feeding out the hay or silage directly on the ground. This prevents cattle from dropping manure onto the feed and then spreading disease via oral-fecal contamination. Consequently, when cows give birth outside of the growing season it causes your entire year-round operation to be much more capital-intensive.
→ When calving during the growing season in a daily grazing rotation, feed bunks and hay feeders are obviously completely unnecessary during the calving season since the cattle have access to a fresh slice of green growing pasture each day. However, when your cattle give birth during the growing season, your winter will also look very different because summer calving allows your cattle to safely participate in a winter grazing program, which will significantly reduce or even eliminate your need to produce, store, and feed hay, silage and other cattle feed rations.
In a typical calving program outside of the growing season, within 24 hours of its birth every newborn calf is caught and 'processed' with a tag, +/- a castration ring, +/- dehorning paste, +/- a vitamin E injection to boost their immune system. Tagging each calf immediately after birth is essential when birthing outside of the growing season so that cows and calves can easily be reunited, sorted, or rounded up together during the complicated moves between pens or when a calf becomes ill. A tag is often the only way to easily find the mother if a calf is found ill and needs to be moved to the barn or quarantine pen.
→ When calving during the growing season it is best to leave the cow/calf pair alone unless the calf (or cow) requires treatment for a disease. By leaving the cow/calf pair alone, they are able to forge the strong bond that allows them to easily find each other. Interrupting this bonding process to jam a tag into the calf's ear, castrate it, and stick it with a needle risks the cow abandoning the calf - it happens often when the cow/calf pair are disturbed in the first days after the calf is born. A calf born on pasture is also much harder to catch when it is born on warm pastures so you risk disrupting the whole herd with a completely unnecessary rodeo when you venture into the pasture to tag newborns. And in the wide open spaces of a growing pasture you are liable to get yourself killed by a protective mama-cow who should be congratulated, not hit with a defensive 2x4, for protecting her calf.
There is no reason to tag or process every calf immediately when they are born on pasture. As you are about to learn, there is a much simpler solution.
As I explained in the previous bulleted point, there is no organizational benefit to processing every calf at birth when your herd gives birth on pasture. In fact, it is a logistical nightmare in the wide-open spaces of a pasture birthing situation, and adds unnecessary risk to both cattle and handlers as well as significantly driving up your labor costs.
A much simpler approach is to delay tagging, castrating, dehorning, and other calf processing until after calving season ends, and then scheduling a single day in the corral with your cattle to process them, all at once. One afternoon in the corral replaces 6 weeks of constant cattle wrangling! There are, however, a few key differences in how you organize your calf processing if you adopt this approach, which we'll look at in detail below:
One of the first concerns ranchers raise with delaying their tagging is that they are concerned that if they simply slap random tags into their calves ears during a later calf-processing event, they won't know which calf belongs to which cow. There is a simple solution. Once the cows and calves are reunited immediately after the stress of calf processing (tagging/branding/dehorning), each calf will quickly find its mother for a drink. Spend the morning or afternoon in the pasture with a notebook and paper and record which calf numbers belong to which cows - no wrangling, no stress, just a relaxed afternoon spent in the field with your cattle.
You can even pair up cow and calf numbers long after the calf processing date. You simply need to pair up numbers for each cow/calf pair that you observe suckling. The best times to observe suckling is at the end of a daily grazing period or when the herd gathers for a drink at the water trough. Even the unfamiliar sight of you standing around in the pasture will cause many calves to seek out their mothers for a drink - suckling is as much about food as it is about retreating to the reassuring safety of their mother's side. I have successfully paired up 400 cow/calf pairs using this method over a period of two relaxed afternoons spent standing around among the grazing cattle. No rodeo, no sweat, no cattle wrangling, and not a single pair unaccounted for! Compare that to the time and effort of catching and tagging every single calf at birth, especially when they are born in wide-open summer pastures!
Another concern raised by ranchers is that if the newborns are not tagged immediately, they won't know which calf belong to which cow if they need to treat a calf or remove a cow/calf pair from the herd for any reason. Again, there is a simple solution that arises from watching the behavior of your cattle.
While a cow (or calf) may not react right away if the other is removed from the herd, it only takes a little while for udders to fill with milk and become uncomfortable or for the calf's appetite for a fresh drink to reassert itself. And so, before long, the other half of the separated pair will quickly reveal itself through bawling, pacing the fence, distended udder, and other commotion against the backdrop of an otherwise calm grazing herd. Furthermore, the natural instinct of both cow and calf when they can't find each other is to return to the last place that they were together. In a daily rotational grazing program this usually means that the last place they saw one another was in the previous pasture slice. Thus, it's not uncommon to find the missing half of the cow/calf pair waiting for you the next morning, bawling at the gate to the previous day's pasture slice.
Delaying tagging does not work when cows give birth outside of the growing season because the management required when your cows give birth outside of the growing season is so much more complicated, as described earlier on this page. Delayed tagging is thus yet another significantly simpler management solution that can only be used if your herd's birthing season is scheduled during the growing season; only then can you benefit from the labor savings of delaying tagging.
By delaying the calf processing until after the calving season ends you will not be able to castrate your bull calves with the commonly-used elastic castration rings, which must be used immediately at birth. Instead you will need to castrate with a scalpel during the calf-processing day scheduled after the end of birthing season. Producers unaccustomed to castrating with a scalpel should get their vet to teach them how, or consider hiring the vet for the afternoon to perform this task on the cattle processing day.
While the castration rings are more convenient to use, they are actually NOT as healthy as castrating with a scalpel. And there is a hidden cost to your beef production when you use castration rings. Castration rings take weeks to completely remove the testicles, which creates a festering wound that attracts flies. Just because the calves look fine from the pasture fence does not mean all is well. A significant number of calves will develop low-level infections around the castration ring, which will slow their growth and compromise their health while their bodies battle the infections. Furthermore, flies will lay their eggs around these infected areas, leading to maggots.
Once you've seen even a single calf whose entire abdomen has been taken over by maggots because of the 'convenience' of having used a castration ring, you'll likely never want to use them again. Castrating with a scalpel is a clean cut, there's good blood flow to cleanse the wound, and then everything can dry up and start to heal immediately, virtually eliminating the chance of infection. And, when released back out onto fresh green pastures after castration, the cattle have clean grass to lay on so the wound stays clean.
The other benefit of delaying castration until calf processing day is that the bull calves' growth will benefit from the extra months of testosterone in their systems, which will naturally increase their growth.
Dehorning paste only works if applied during the first few days of a calf's life. Delaying the calf processing date until after the end of birthing season means that you will have to dehorn with a dehorning iron. While dehorning with a dehorning iron is extremely painful, when it occurs among all the other commotion of calf-processing day it is over quickly and is a necessary evil that is counter-balanced by all the benefits that the calf has experienced by not getting handled in the first few hours of its life.
Dehorning with a dehorning iron is, however, much less traumatic and less risky than using a wire saw to cut horns off a more mature animal at a later date when more significant restraints must be used to handle the cattle, and humans are put at greater risk when handling the larger, more powerful animals.
If your cattle are ultimately destined to be sold back into the conventional feedlot system then you should dehorn every calf. Period. If you don't, then the feedlot will dehorn them when they are much older and when the experience is much more traumatizing. It's essential to the safety of the other cattle in the confinement pens, to their handlers, and to avoid meat losses due to bruising from horn pokes in the feedlot pens. It's also important to minimize the amount of space each animal takes up at the feed bunk without poking each other in the eyes while they eat. Any cattle sold at auction which still have horns will be sold at a discounted price.
Even if you grass-finish and direct-market your own cattle, I still recommend dehorning. Obviously, handler safety is still a concern around horned cattle. The risk of goring one another is also still a concern if your cattle spend any time at a feed bunk, such as if you still rely on hay or silage during any portion of the winter. But even if you graze year-round, meat bruising is still an issue, which will occur during cattle processing days in the corral and during transport on the way to the slaughter facility. The only exception is if your cows give birth out on range, far in the mountains where predators are a concern. In that case you may want to leave the horns on your breeding stock while continuing to dehorn your meat animals.
Many producers inject their newborns with a Vitamin E shot at birth to boost their immune systems. While beneficial to calves born outside of the growing season when disease pressures are high, this injection is unnecessary when cattle are born during the growing season when the weather is warm and disease pressures are extremely low. The cost and hassle of a Vitamin E injection given at birth can therefore safely be eliminated from most calving programs when birthing is scheduled during the growing season.
. . .
As you can see from this discussion, giving birth during the growing season
makes your calf processing much simpler and lowers your time and labor
costs. It's another of those win-win-win solutions for cattle, farmers,
and production costs.
You can learn more about how to simplify your calf processing (tagging, castrating, dehorning, etc) during a pasture birthing season in "The Cattle Year on Grass" chapter of Grass-fed Cattle. This chapter also discusses weaning and vaccinations and how these too can be greatly simplified as a result of the knock-on benefits of giving birth during the growing season.
Most of the discussion so far on this page has been about all the things you don't need to do when cows give birth during the growing season. Now it's time to explain what you do need to do to manage a successful birthing season on pasture.
Make sure you keep up daily pasture moves, with a moving back fence, throughout the entire calving season so you continue to only provide access to a single day's grazing at a time. It must be daily pasture moves, NOT LONGER!
Daily pasture slices ensure that the area being grazed is small so it's easy to find newborns hiding in the grass during daily pasture moves. But, even more importantly, single-day grazing slices alter the grazing behavior of the herd in several ways that are important to your herd management during the birthing season:
Competition in the grazing herd is greatest in single-day pasture moves. This ensures a more even grazing impact on the grass, which reduces the risk of losing newborns hiding in tall grass clumps. It's easier to spot newborns left behind during pasture moves because the entire pasture slice was grazed on the same day.
Single-day rotational grazing slices also create a strong herd identity, in contrast to larger slices that cause cattle to graze independently of one another. (You can read more about this phenomenon in the article about the benefits of using a daily pasture rotation.) This effect on cow psychology actually changes the birthing behavior of your cows.
When cows are not participating in a daily herd migration they will retreat from the herd to give birth and then hide their newborns in the grass for several days before introducing them to the rest of the cattle herd. This is why it's so easy for newborns to be left behind during pasture moves.
But in a daily pasture rotation the cows identify so strongly with the herd that the herd becomes the place of safety. This causes them to give birth right in the middle of the herd, often during a quiet moment when everyone is bedded down to chew their cud, instead of retreating to give birth outside of the herd's periphery. This ensures that the calf immediately identifies with the herd and causes the cow to bring her calf with her during pasture moves rather than leaving it hidden when the herd begins to move. In short, daily rotational grazing slices help newborns stay with the herd right from the moment they hit the ground.
Grazing slices should always be directly adjacent to one another so that if a calf gets left behind, it is just on the other side of the fence, not half way across the farm. This ensures that the cows don't have to choose between the herd and their babies if they get separated because at most the calf will only be just on the other side of the fence.
This point has important implications to how you plan your grazing rotation during the birthing season. You need to plan the 'flow' of your pasture rotation so your pasture rotation during calving can do a complete loop of the farm without any distant pasture moves. Every move MUST be to a new slice of pasture that is directly adjacent to the previous slice. While it's okay to expect cows to walk long distances to water through water alleys during the calving season, pasture moves should only ever be to the next directly adjacent pasture slice. Plan accordingly.
Treed areas tend to have less dense pasture growth and lots of places for newborns to hide increasing the chances that a newborn calf will be left behind during a pasture move. If you have heavily treed areas or areas with dense brush in your pasture rotation, it's best, whenever possible, to graze them before birthing season starts and then avoid returning until the 6-week birthing season is over.
Adjacent pasture slices should be divided only by single-wire electric fences. A single wire is high enough for newborns to walk underneath. If newborns are left behind or wind up on the wrong side of a fence during the pasture move, they are able to easily walk underneath the electric fence wire without touching it.
As calves grow older they will come into contact with the electric wire and learn to respect its boundaries, but while they are newborns it is far more advantageous if they can walk effortlessly underneath the electric fences. This makes it easy for newborns to catch up with the herd if they are left behind during a pasture move and prevents the horrible yet sadly common sight of calves that get shredded by barb-wire fences as they panic and try to reunite with the herd after winding up on the wrong side of a fence during a pasture move.
A consistent schedule is extremely important when cattle give birth on pasture because it creates a calm predictable routine for the cattle to adjust to. Early mornings are the best time for your pasture moves. Here's how a consistent routine impacts the cattle birthing process:
Prior to the pasture move the cows already know to expect the upcoming herd move because it's a consistent routine. Most cows will therefore delay giving birth because of the fear of being left behind by the upcoming herd move and because of the competitive drive to get access to the next day's grazing slice.
Once you open the gate and they get access to the fresh slice of pasture, again, no cow wants to be left behind in the spirit of competition so calving continues to be delayed while the herd grazes.
Following a few hours of grazing all the cows will settle down for a rumination session, usually by late morning or early afternoon. This is the perfect, calm, safe time to give birth. Most calves will be born during this time interval. This ensures that the majority of newborns will be almost 20 hours old before they face their first pasture move, which ensures that they will have had time to drink colostrum and be strong and mobile enough to easily follow along with the herd. The consistent routine ensures that every cow and calf's needs are accounted for despite the demands of the daily herd migration.
When cattle are moved calmly - at a walking pace that your 80-year old grandmother can keep up with - the cows tend to stay calm and remember where their calves are. In this calm environment a cow that is missing her calf will often even turn back and walk back against the flow of cattle to retrieve a newborn calf. A calm environment allows for independent thinking.
However, when cattle are allowed to rush through a gate at headlong speed to access the next pasture, the excitement produces adrenaline, which triggers the primeval fear of being left behind by the herd. Adrenaline, whether it is triggered by excitement or fear, produces the same response... the blind irrational urge to stay with the herd, preferably at its very center. In the panic and adrenaline-boosted excitement of a race to fresh pasture, cows will forget or abandon calves hiding in the grass.
The speed of the cattle walking to the next rotational grazing slice, even if it's only a few feet through the gate, will make all the difference between whether the newborns are picked up or abandoned by their mothers in the rush to get to the next slice of grass.
There are a variety of tricks to train cattle for slow calm pasture moves, such as using the mobile mineral feeder as a 'follow-me' lure to control walking speed and block onrushing cattle, training the herd to vocal 'follow-me' commands, or using a trained lead animal. These tricks are all discussed in the "Electric Fences and Rotational Grazing" and "Managing Your Herd" chapters of Grass-fed Cattle, including an entire section on livestock handling and a detailed explanation about how to train your herd for pasture moves.
During the calving season it is important to return to the herd a few hours after the pasture move is complete to see if there are any cows pacing the fence line trying to return to the previous grazing slice to retrieve calves hiding in the tall grass. Your cattle's behavior provides the clues about whether all is well. High-speed, high-stress pasture moves can cause a cow to completely and permanently forget about her calf in her panic to remain with the herd. Stress - high adrenaline - can break the bond that causes a cow to look for her calf. But calm pasture moves and adjacent pasture slices ensure that the cows will instinctively begin looking for their calves by the time they have finished grazing and the milk begins building up pressure inside their udders. A quick glance at the herd an hour or two after the pasture move will reveal the majority of cases where a cow has been separated by a calf during the pasture move.
Some producers are tempted to leave the back fence open so cows can go back and retrieve their young. DO NOT DO THIS! If the previous pasture slice remains accessible, then cows will intentionally leave their calves behind to go graze the new pastures, which only contributes to the problem. As long as pasture moves stay calm, the closed back fence reinforces that the cows need to bring their newborns along during pasture moves because the herd is moving on, with no chance of return. It's all about creating the right conditions to encourage the desired psychology within your cattle herd.
As you can see from this discussion, planning for cows to give birth on pasture during the growing season is incredibly simple. So is the task of managing your cattle herd once birthing season begins. All it takes is a little planning to account for the different environmental conditions and cattle psychology unfolding in your cow herd. You can learn more about how to plan for and manage your calving season on pasture in the "Electric Fences and Rotational Grazing" chapter of Grass-fed Cattle.
And when you're ready to start planning your cattle farm, check out my book: Grass-Fed Cattle: How to Produce and Market Natural Beef