What is it?
The cow-calf operation is the foundation sector of the beef industry where calves are born and raised up to weaning age. After calves are weaned at approximately 6 to 8 months old they may be sold to a backgrounding operation or to the feedlot that includes a backgrounding enterprise in addition to fattening cattle for slaughter, or retained on-farm and backgrounded until they are over a year old. Almost all calves sold are destined for beef production: only 10 to 20% of calves retained may be used as replacements.The cow-calf sector is actually divided into two enterprises: Seedstock/Purebred cow-calf, and Commercial cow-calf.
Seedstock or Purebred cow-calf production is all about marketing and showing the best purebred or full-blood animals that a producer can produce. Only the best heifers, cows and bulls are shown, raised and sold as breeding stock. Calves come from cows and bulls selected for particular traits that other producers–often their customers–are looking for with the use of EPDs or Expected Progeny Differences. Purebred producers still naturally breed their cows, but have found a greater advantage of selection through the use of artificial insemination. All animals in this type of operation are registered in a provincial and/or national breed association registry of that particular breed. The rest are destined for the packer or may get purchased as average breeding stock for commercial producers. Even if a producer has more than one breed to raise and sell as breeding stock, none of these breed groups are allowed to interbreed. This would only be permitted if a producer was raising cattle commercially.
Cattle kept for selling as breeding animals are often shown in livestock shows and go through a feed-testing phase to both advertise and determine genetic quality in terms of conformation and feeding efficiency. It is also a great way for a producer to advertise their farm or ranch and their animals. Further advertisements come through the sale of heifers and bulls sold as yearlings mainly through futurity sales or more commonly known as bull sales. Seedstock producers advertise these sales through magazine and agricultural newspaper advertisements and classifieds, as well as dispersal of bull sale catalogs detailing EPDs and generational history (going back only by three generations) along with a picture of the bull or heifer to be sold.
Commercial producers breed cattle for the purpose of selling the resulting offspring into beef production. They have the option of raising and using purebred, fullblood, straight-bred or composite/cross-bred females and do not have to register them in a breed association. They also have the freedom to use any breed bull they choose, whether to produce calves with hybrid vigour (calves express traits superior to both parents which are two distinct breeds), or to increase and enhance genetic quality of the cow herd through continued use of replacement females. In the end, most calves (being all males) are destined for beef production. All males in this type of cow-calf operation are castrated when young and not raised as bulls, unlike with seedstock operations.
Commercial producers have no need to advertise and market their animals through livestock shows nor futurity sales. Rather, they just have to focus on producing the kind of animals cattle buyers are looking for with respect to beef production.
What cattle are raised?
Depending on the type of operation, beef cows and bulls comprise of one or more breeds, being either purebred (of one defined breed), fullblood (within a breed registration rulings, is of at least 62.5% of a dominant breed, such as that with Simmental cattle), composite (breed made of more two or more breeds, such as with Speckle Park, a breed made up of Angus, White Park and Shorthorn) or crossbred (offspring resulting from breeding two different breeds together, such as Hereford-Angus cross, as that with the black white-face calf in the above photo). The main breeds found in the average cow-calf operation are typically Hereford, Angus, Charolais, Simmental, Limousin, Gelbvieh or Shorthorn. Other cow-calf producers will also raise “exotic” or “outlier” breeds, like Murray Grey, Texas Longhorn, Scottish Highland, Dexter, Braunvieh, and Low-line Angus.
Cows are selected and used under the desired management practices of a producer. No cow-calf producer has the same management protocol or the same selection programme as their neighbour, thus breed[s], temperament, size and genetics of the cows raised differs from one farm and ranch to another, just as herd size ranges from as few as two cows to as many as 100,000 on the largest Canadian ranches.
How are they raised?
All Canadian beef cows and bulls are raised outdoors all year round, thus they must be able to adapt to the cold Canadian winters. However, they have access to shelter that varies from natural landscapes such as hills or coulees that provide shelter from the more inclement weather, to barns and sheds. Calving barns and sheds are available for cows and calves that are newborn and need to get out of the conditions that are very unwelcome for a wet, newborn calf. Cattle naturally prefer to be outside instead of confined to a barn or shed, thus areas are laid out with straw for them to lay down in and to minimize the chance of cows and bulls getting frost-bite on their more sensitive parts. Wasted hay from the feedbunks is also used as bedding by the animals.
Maintaining and keeping a cow-calf herd means not only concern for their welfare and well-being, but also having a good feeding and health program. Cows and calves have certain nutritional requirements that must be met throughout the year and their reproductive and growth cycle, respectively. Salt and mineral are very important to have available for cattle at all times, as well as fresh water. Cattle are grazed in Canada mainly from mid spring to late fall, though some producers have been successful at grazing their cattle year-round, even with plenty of snow on the ground. For most, though, feeding commences through the winter. Cattle are often on hay and/or silage during the winter months. Grain is supplied during times when they are most likely to experience cold-stress and to cows and bulls that are a considered “under-conditioned” or thin. Feeding usually starts from November and ends in April or May when cattle are put out to pasture.
Vaccinations are required for prevention of diseases such as bovine viral diarrhea (BVD), Clostridial illnesses like “black-leg” and “red water disease”, infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR), parainfluenza virus-3 (PI-3), bovine respiratory syncytial virus complex (BRSVD), and others. Vitamins like A, D, and E are injected in cows and calves as well. When to vaccinate cows, bulls and calves depend on when they leave the yard to go to pasture, the age of the calves, reproductive stage of the cows, and even time of year. A herd health programme is often set up between the producer and their large-animal veterinarian.
For the safety of the producer, cattle that need to be treated or vaccinated cannot be done so without a handling facility. The welfare of cattle also comes with handling them properly to minimize stress, and create an environment where they are not going to be fearful of coming back to the location where they have had been processed before. A properly designed and built handling facility helps with that, as well as creates opportunity to be able to sort cattle and quarantine those who are ill or are new to the herd.
What is involved?
A cow-calf herd must be selective of the kind of cattle they raise to get the best calves they can. Cows must portray good maternal instincts–from ability to bond quickly to her newborn to being able to instinctively feel the need to protect young from potential threats–to raise and suckle a calf from birth to weaning. Bulls must be fertile, ready to breed, and in good shape to do so because quite often the cows are not going to be coming to him.
Beef cows do not live forever, so producers must be able to retain heifers as replacements. Only the best heifers are kept, and they are fed to grow to breeding age. Heifers are bred at around 15 months of age, and are expected to calve at 24 months old. Heifer selection is based on growth, temperament, pelvic measurements, conformation (anatomical structural merits, from feet and legs to capacity of the barrel, from ribs to hips), breeding ability (where they are able to maintain pregnancy for the 9.5 month gestation period), and maternal instincts. If any heifer at any time does not meet these requirements, she is usually sold as excess stock. Beef cows are also sold or “culled” due to similar standards.
Bulls are very important to the cow-calf herd. It is said that a bull is worth half of the breeding herd, which means he contributes to half of the genetics of all calves produced. A bull must be structurally sound (good feet and legs, “deep” or expansive in the body, wide in the pelvic and large gonads for his breed, size and age), fertile, and docile in order to be deemed a worthy herd bull. However, the calves he sires is often always the final verdict to his staying power on the farm. If the calves he sires are, for instance, causing calving problems in both cows and calves, have too much or too little growth for what the market wants, and/or his daughters lack feminine characteristics to be considered worthy replacements, a producer may have to consider looking for a different bull. Even if a bull breeds for good quality calves, he will not stay long if he has become too dangerous to manage.
Many producers still choose to naturally breed their cows using one bull for every 20 head of females, however, artificial insemination (AI) is also gaining ground with more ease and greater selection of genetic traits that need to be enhanced or increased in the breeding herd. AI is still far more popular in dairy production than beef, however the recent findings in advancing beef herd genetics have been discovered through artificial breeding using semen from numerous high quality bulls. Such bulls are often too expensive or too far away to be used to breed even one or two selected cows, however AI quickly and efficiently solves that issue. AI allows a producer to breed as few as one cow to one bull each without the added expenses of keeping a bull. Producers select the bulls they want to use through the use of a number system called Expected Progeny Differences or EPDs. This shows a numeric code for various traits including calving ease, milk, yearling weight, rib-eye area and scrotal circumference. Producers use these numbers to determine if future calves are to be sold or raised for breeding stock or beef production.
Beef bulls are start breeding at around a year of age, and can breed for as long as 5 to 15 years of age, depending on his temperament, structural soundness and fertility. The breeding season for cow-calf operations can be any time of the year, however timing of breeding determines the time of year calves are born. Breeding season in the spring gives calves born in the late winter; cows bred in late summer means calves born in mid-spring. Breeding season usually lasts for around 90 days, however it can vary by more or less a month for some operations. Others may have a year-round breeding operation.
Calves are weaned off a few months later after the breeding season, usually when they are around 6 months of age, sometimes older. Conventional weaning practices still have cows and calves separated so that they no longer have contact with each other, and calves are sold off via the truck, or raised elsewhere where they cannot hear, smell or see their mothers. Both are quite stressful for both cows and calves, so some producers have opted for more stress-free weaning practices such as natural weaning where cows are expected to kick off their calves once they are getting close to calving, or fence-line weaning where a calf is able to smell and see his mother, but not touch or try to suckle. Most calves, once weaned, are sold into the start of beef production (see backgrounding and feedlot.)
Calving should be a process where the cows are able to do it all themselves without much help. Bull and cow selection helps with that, but so does good management. Cows and bred heifers need to be checked regularly for any calving difficulty problems or issues with females being able to bond with their calf. A large-animal veterinarian should be on speed-dial in case there’s problems a producer can’t handle by themselves.
Overall, cow-calf can be a big responsibility with much to manage and plan. Good planning and good management will make things easier and better for raising a cow-calf herd, no matter the size.