Editors note: This article is the third in a series featuring ideas from beef producers across the country. See the first: BCRC: Eight beef producers share their recent changes and second: BCRC: Five producers share ideas that have made their farms and ranches more efficient
Beef producers across the country are always looking to improve management and production practices that not only benefit cattle, but also reduce their workload, and help to save time and money.
It may involve improved calf identification measures, installing remote cameras to monitor watering systems, or adopting quiet livestock handling practices in a flexible year-round grazing system. They all help to improve beef production efficiency.
Here are some measures three beef producers say has benefited their operations:
Rob Somerville who ranches with family members in east-central Alberta is using both high and low-tech technology to help him manage cattle on the century old family farm near Endiang, about 90 minutes east of Red Deer.
On the low-tech side, noting “it may have been a good idea my wife had”, Somerville says for the past two calving seasons he has been using bright coloured dog collars to help him identify calves he needs to be watching.
“All our calves are given I.D. ear tags,” says Somerville who ranches with his wife Laurie. “But when you have a good sized herd and you need to find five calves out of about 300 head it can take a lot of looking to find the ones you want to check. Using these dog collars has made the job just so much easier.”
The brightly coloured dog collars are applied to calves that need some follow up attention. It could be a situation where Somerville just wants to find a calf to make sure it is nursing its mother, it may be a calf that needs to be fed morning and evening, or in another case, it may be a calf being treated for some health reason that needs to be watched or given a follow up treatment.”Say, for example, it is a calf and I just want to make sure it is nursing,” he says. “I’ll give it an orange dog collar and then when I’m checking the herd it is very easy to pick out. If there is another calf that needs to be fed twice a day I will give it a different coloured dog collar. And if it is a calf that needs to be given some sort of treatment I’ll give it another coloured collar. It makes it so much easier to find them.”
Acting on Laurie’s suggestion, Somerville found the collars at an outdoor sporting supply store. They are large, brightly coloured and made of durable plastic type material. He bought several in different colours.
“An important thing to remember, as soon as you are done trying to track a calf, make sure you take the collar off. They can be cleaned up and reused.”
Value of RFID tags
Another higher tech management tool Somerville began using during the 2019 calving season, is to outfit each calf with a CCIA-approved RFID ear tag as soon as it is born. “The dog collars help with management, but using these RFID tags on newborn calves has actually made me money,” says Somerville. With the RFID tags applied to the calf, almost as soon as it hits the ground, Somerville can usually match the calf RFID to the mother’s RFID, eliminating or reducing the risk of ending up with an orphan calf.
“At the peak of calving when you have 20 or 25 cows calving a day it can get crazy,” he says. “Most pairs mother-up very well, but every once in while you run into a calf on its own and you have to ask “who does this guy belong to?” So we try to be there and apply that RFID tag just as soon as the calf is born, and then we can come back later or the next day to dehorn calves as needed and attach a floppy ID tag in the ear.
Somerville bought a good quality Gallagher RFID tag reader, which also allows him to input management information into the reader right in the field.
“As soon as the calf is born it takes a few seconds to snap the RFID tag into place, you have the calf’s number in the reader and usually the mother is close by so you can capture her number as well and then move on to the next one.”
Somerville says he has had situations where soon after a cow gives birth, the mother wanders off and ignores the calf, in other situations he has had one cow calve but then she mothers up with another cow’s calf, and occasionally there are twins born with both calves needing to be linked to a single mother.
He said it would have been a really useful tool in the spring of 2018 when bad weather hit during calving. “Several calves were literally born in a snowbank so you rushed to get inside to be warmed up, but then it was a challenge to get them paired up with their right mothers later on,” he says.
Somerville says even with his new system of applying RFID tags at birth, if one calf does get missed it is easier to determine the mother of that calf through a process of elimination. “You can identify the ones that are paired up by RFID numbers, so that leaves just one or two that maybe haven’t been,” he says.
Along with the RFID tag number, he can also input calf birthweights and other management information into the reader, which is all useful as he follows that calf through their on-farm finishing feedlot.
“Information on how the calf performs is also useful in making decisions on which cows to cull,” he says. “If you’re short of pasture and need to cut down numbers, it is always good to know who the bottom-end cows are.”
Somerville says he has used the RFID tags for years, but “it was mostly because it was required,” he says. The calves would receive RFID tags at branding or just ahead of sale day. “I see now how they can be a valuable management tool right from birth in helping to keep cow-calf pairs mothered up. Using these RFID tags at calving will make us more money.”
Travis Peardon likes to keep an eye on summer and winter watering systems as well as farmyard activities even when he might be some distance from home.
The southern Saskatchewan beef producer, who farms with family members near Outlook uses two camera systems to help him monitor and manage cattle helping him to maintain the beef herd and also saves time and reduces stress.
One camera system is used to monitor remote watering systems on summer pasture and winter feeding areas. The camera either confirms water is available to his 250 head cowherd, or can alert him to a supply problem.
“Actually I got the idea from colleague Alicia Sopatyk, (Saskatchewan Agriculture livestock and feed extension specialist at Tisdale) who had tested the camera idea through the ADOPT program, ” says Peardon, who himself is also a provincial livestock specialist at Outlook. ADOPT is an acronym for Ag Demonstration of Practices and Technologies program.
With their cattle wintered on a site about a half-mile from the farm headquarters, Peardon, for the winter of 2018/19, installed a game camera over the winter watering system. The winter-feeding site has a dugout with water transferred into a wet well and then pumped into a heated water bowl. He has electricity available from nearby irrigation systems to provide power to the watering system, although it can be hooked up to solar power as well.
The $350 game camera is mounted on a post above the water bowl and is programmed to capture three photos per day and transfer those photos to Peardon’s cell phone.”You can set up the camera system to be motion activated or just program the camera to take photos at different times of the day,” he says. The game camera system provides 100 free photos per month. A fee is charged for any photos over the 100 limit.
“We know when our cattle usually head to the waterer so we have the camera programmed to send three photos daily at 10, 11 a.m. and 12 noon,” he says. “It’s a good clear picture of the bowl, so if we can see water in the bowl we know it is working.”
Similarly, they can move the camera to a solar powered watering system used on pasture in the summer.
“Before we had the camera we would need to check the watering systems every day,” he says. “This way we can regularly monitor the waterers and know they are working. You don’t want your cattle to run out of water at anytime, but particularly on a hot day in the summer water needs to be available.”
The game camera photos are transmitted to both Peardon’s cell phone as well as to his father’s cell phone. “That way we can both keep an eye on the watering system and check if there appears to be a problem,” he says.
“It saves time, it provides peace of mind being able to see the waterers are working, and also from a production standpoint you don’t want cattle running out of water,” he says.
Another calving camera system in the farmyard is also a useful tool, says Peardon. It can be monitored form his cell phone or portable tablet.
“The calving camera helps you monitor cattle that are about to calve in the yard,” he says. “You can scan over a group of cows and zoom in on a particular animal for a closer look. You can also zoom in on the waterer in the pen to make sure it is working. And I can also scan most of the farmyard to make sure everything is in order there.”
Variable weather is something Dean Manning is learning to work with on his mixed farming operation at Falmouth, NS about a 45 minute drive north of Halifax.
With a 75 to 80 head commercial beef herd being about one half of his farming operation and a market garden and vegetable production being about the other half, he’s been working to develop an extended, but flexible grazing system for his operation.
“I’ve always been interested in grazing management and probably focused more on getting the proper forage stand for a number of years,” he says. “Now I have more focus on extending the grazing system, which is often affected by increasingly variable weather patterns.”
And as he moves cattle through a grazing system that has them outside about 90 per cent of the time, he also pays attention to proper, gentle, handling practices, which makes management much easier.In recent years, he’s been working to extend winter grazing as long as possible. Through proper management of a rotational grazing system, he stockpiles forage on both native and tame pastures, he seeds some kale as an annual forage crop for fall and winter grazing, and has also saves part of his corn silage crop for winter grazing as well.
He says his cattle — a Red Angus based cowherd crossbred with continental breeds such as Limousin, Simmental and Charolais — are never really inside for winter feeding. “They are used to being outdoors so that is where they spend most of winter,” says Manning. “There is a loose housing barn they can use for shelter if the weather gets bad, but they come and go as they wish. And we have native pastures that are brushy and well treed so they use that as well if they need shelter from the weather.”
Manning runs both spring and fall calving herds. Calves from the spring herd are weaned in late October and sold as feeders, while calves from the fall herd are weaned in early April and sold in April and May. All calves are weaned with the Quiet Wean nose flap system. It is a system that allow calves to remain alongside their mothers, but once the nose flaps are attached they can no longer nurse. After three to five days of not nursing, the calves are weaned and can be separated from their mothers with considerably reduced stress on the cattle as well as humans who don’t want to listen to the bawling.
With most of the farm landbase devoted to forage production for winter feeding, Manning needs to haul cows to pasture. “We are sort of boxed in here where the farm is with little extra land available close by,” he says. “For summer grazing we need to haul cows to different pastures that may be one to two hours away.”
Tame pastures are a combination of mostly fine-leaf tall fescue, meadow fescue and festulolium, which is a cross between tall fescue and perennial ryegrass. Native pastures are a combination of native grasses, shrubs and trees. “The native pastures are fairly productive land for cattle but not suited for cultivation,” says Manning. “It provides good protection throughout the year if the cattle need shelter from the elements.”
In the rotational grazing system, the cattle move through the tame grass pastures three times over the growing season, while the native pastures are used once with maybe a second shorter or lighter grazing later in season.”We try to leave some of the pastures to regrow so the stockpiled forage provides some late fall grazing,” he says. “But once it gets colder we get snow and sometimes freezing rain, or snow melts and freezes and then the pastures get this layer of ice and cows can’t reach the grass. Once it thaws or as we get closer to spring and the ice melts they can go back on those pastures.”
Kale and standing corn remain above the ice layer so they provide grazing later into the winter. While the cattle are grazing these winter crops, Manning also provides supplemental feed in the form of round bale grass silage.
“Sometimes the weather co-operates and we can make hay, but usually we have frequent rains, so most of the grasses are cut and baled at higher moisture and put into in-line wrapping which produces a long sealed tube of bales that turn into silage.”
For winter feeding, along with kale and/or corn grazing, silage bales are hauled out and placed in roundbale feeders to minimize feed waste. “If they are grazing standing corn, for example, we limit feed the corn area they can graze with a moveable electric fencing and we’ll place the round bale feeders on the area that has already been grazed and haul out new bales every day or two as needed. We also keep moving the feeders to a new location to help with manure distribution.”
Manning says, although he’s only used winter corn grazing for a couple years it appears to work well. The cattle do well and it reduces the amount of feed he needs to haul. A downside can be the variable weather.
“If we have frozen ground, the cows can remain on the corn fields, but if we get a thaw they’d be up to their bellies in mud,” he says. When there is a thaw, he moves cows to other pastures with higher ground. He also moves the roundbale feeders to those areas. If it freezes up again, cows can go back to the corn.
“With the variable weather we really have to keep things flexible and move to areas where conditions are more suitable.”
With the need to move cattle by truck to pasture, or just to move animals through rotation in summer, or to fields with better footing in the winter, Manning says it is important to use proper cattle handling practices so moves go smoothly.
“You need to have an understanding of animal behaviour and also be calm when working around cattle,” he says. “We also cull cattle based on their temperament. If you go into a field and something gets their head in the air and ears pointing forward to take off, that’s an animal that isn’t going to stay around this farm. We use calm and quiet handling procedures when handling the cattle and we also want cattle with a quiet temperament.”
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