Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Grass-Fed Cattle :: Chapter 3 Book Report

I had an away soccer game yesterday so I had a chance to finish the third chapter of Julius Ruechel's book "Grass-Fed Cattle". The chapter is titled, "The Cattle Year on Grass," and it was actually a pretty good read that gave me quite a bit to think about. The entire chapter is based around the different stages of development from calving, to nursing, to gaining, and finally to breeding back and even finishing. It is actually a pretty long chapter with a lot of information on many topics so I will just take some time to mention some of the things that really stuck in my mind as I read through the chapter.

There was a special inset "Lesson in Compensatory Gain" and more information on the subject spread throughout the chapter. This is something that usually keeps my attention because the idea of compensatory gain is not something that is talked about a lot in the grain belt of Iowa. Here folks like to see their steers and growing cattle gaining consistently throughout the year because quicker gains mean quicker money. The basic idea is that the cows metabolism slows down in the winter to conserve energy. Then in the spring when the grass comes on it takes a while for their metabolism to speed back up ... so during that time they can make up for the winter. I think this is a big puzzle piece of the grass finishing idea and I'm interested in learning as much as I can.

One other thing that comes up a lot in this chapter is Body Condition Scoring (BCS). Mr. Ruechel relies heavily on BCS for breeding and managing the herd. Again, something I want to learn a lot more about and implement into my herd monitoring. It was nice that there was a BCS chart describing the different scores, 1 to 10.

As I said there was a lot of information in this chapter, but one last thing that I read about in this chapter and that I have been coming across a lot lately is the practice of summer calving and then spring weaning at around 10 months. This is an interesting concept and a little different than some of the other things I have heard and read about. Basically the idea is that you calve in the summer, keep the calf on the cow through the fall and winter, and then wean in the spring on the green grass and give the cow a couple of months of good eating and gaining before she calves. The thinking is that the calf will gain better over the fall and winter while still on their mother and if it comes to the mother losing body condition she will kick the calf off (if she doesn't than maybe she should be culled?). Interesting idea and slightly different approach that the whole getting in tune with nature thing, but maybe something to think about. I know I would be interested in getting some better initial gains on some of my Dexters.

So, that is what I got on this third chapter. I would love to here some of your comments on my ramblings!


dairyprincess said...

Hi Ethan,
Just found your blog! We have very similar stories, but I'm in CA on my folks' dairy farm making cheese. I'd like to learn more about rotational pasture and would also like to get into diversifying our production...introducing chickens and heritage hogs into the mix...is this book more of a grass-fed beef sort of thing, or would it apply to dairy producers as well? Obviously we don't finish our cattle and weaning takes place a little earlier. :)

Rich said...

When you talk about summer calving are you talking about moving the calving season to early summer (May, June, or July)?

I thought the main idea behind an early summer calving season was to increase the calving rate, decrease winter feeding costs, and have an overall increase in the profitability of the cow-calf herd (due to more calves, less winter feeding, and being able to market calves at times of the year when demand is higher).

From what I’ve read, cows that summer calve are able to re-breed easier because they are able to regain the body condition lost over the winter during the spring lush right before calving, and the postpartum recovery period is shorter in July (about 30 days in July versus 70 days in February).

Going into the winter season, a calf born in June is smaller than a March born calf, so it will be much easier to carry it through the winter, (something about winter growth is usually mainly a matter of maintaining body condition instead of gaining body condition). A calf weighing 450 lb. going into the winter will supposedly “catch up” to a calf that originally weighed 650 lb. when the grass starts to grow again in the spring.

Doesn't compensatory gain also have something to do with producing higher quality highly-marbled beef? Beef cattle need to be gaining weight by building muscle when they are younger, then as they get older and closer to finishing weight they need to be gaining at much higher rates of gain to produce the marbling that produces a high quality beef.

JRG said...

The only downside I see to a summer born calf when it comes to pasture finishing it is a lot more challenging to get them to low choice without taking them through another winter.

A calf born just ahead of green grass in the Midwest, say about April 1, can be finished at 18-19 months in late October / early November. A calf born in June just can't quite get it done by the end of the quality pasture season so you end up taking them through another winter and harvesting at 26-28 months. While this will enrich the flavor it adds significantly to the UCOP.

You might get them finished on annual ryegrass or oats in Nov-Dec, but it is a lot more challenging.

If you are selling into a premium pasture-finished market, you can probably afford the extra cost of calving a month or two earlier. If you're just selling calves, summer calving and weaning in spring can make good sense.

Ethan Book said...

dairyprincess - I think I would suggest the book "Quality Pasture" by Allan Nation for you. It seemed like it had a good bit of dairy information in it. You can check out this link to my first book report from that book:


If you click on the "Quality Pasture" thing in the tags you should see my other thoughts on the book. I'm glad that you stumbled on the site!

Rich - I believe you are right about moving the season to the June*ish time of year. Everything you mentioned was basically what was in the book and is what led me to think more about the idea. Have you done summer calving?

JRG - I do get what you are saying about the two winters to finish thing and then possibly the out of sync processing time. One thing I will be learning this summer is the gain rate of Dexters. It can be longer at times so that may play a role in summer calving plan. Just some things to consider...

By the way ... GREAT THOUGHTS!!!

Rich said...

“…Have you done summer calving?”

No, but it is something I’ve thought about trying. The only problem I can see is that I’ve also read that when the temperature approaches 90 degrees, bull fertility can decrease, (due to less sperm motility and general heat stress). It might be that summer calving is better suited to areas that have milder summers and harsher winters.

I am mainly interested in summer calving because we also grow winter wheat. Locally, there is a mix of spring and fall calving; with weaned spring calves and cow-calf pairs using winter wheat pasture as winter pasture. Summer calving seems like a way to lessen the grazing pressure on the wheat pasture, and allow more flexibility to grow wheat for grain-only (since grain prices are higher than normal), instead of as a dual-purpose grazing/grain crop.

I’ve also thought that an early-summer born calf might be easier to grass finish by grazing something like an oat pasture in their second fall (like JRG describes above).

JRG said...

Hey Rich,

I don't know if I've ever seen where you live. I take it your in the south somewhere.

Summer calving does work a lot better in places without excessive summer heat. The Northern Plains, New England, etc make more sense than TX or Alabama for summer calving.

I know some people in MO-OK-AR who had real wrecks with summer calving (usually because they were using black cattle).

When we were in MO, all of our cattle had Barzona influence. We calved April-May which meant bulls went in on June 22 and most of our breeding took place in July. We ran a 93% average calf crop year-in-year-out. When we tried to do the same thing with a black herd we dropped from 92% the first year to 68% the second year and 48% the third year. Obviously we quit it with the black herd at that time.

Summer calving is not theuniversal solution for everybody.

Rich said...

JRG - I'm located in central Oklahoma, about 60 miles north of Oklahoma City. We don't get the humidity as much as they do farther south, we mainly just get the heat in the summer.

When you said "...we tried to do the same thing with a black herd we dropped from 92% the first year to 68% the second year and 48% the third year..."

I wonder why your calving rate dropped more and more each year, if it was simply a matter of the heat stress (from the black hides) wouldn't your calving rate have dropped immediately to 48%? Do you think your summer calving problem with black-hided cattle was more aa a result of black cows or black bulls?

I've read about using Barzona bulls, but I've wondered if there is a significant difference or advantage between using a Barzona bull and using something like a Red Brangus bull or a Santa Gertrudis bull. Isn't the Africander bloodline used to establish the Barzona similar to the Brahman bloodline used in the Brangus and Santa Gertrudis?

JRG said...

Rich, It was a bull problem. I should also mention there was no shade whatsoever in these pastures. The cows were cycling at the time but not getting settled. There may have been some early embryonic reabsorption, but I still think it was mostly the bulls. The cows were use to being without shade as they never had any. The bulls came out of shaded pastures to the open sunshine st the beginning of summer. We semen tested the bulls before and after the season and none of them were any good at all at the end.

I think the first year was a rainy cooler summer and each of the successive years were very hot and on the drier side. The red cows bred at their usual 93% each of those year.

Santa Gertrudis bulls were used in the development of the Barzona. The first cross was Africaner bulls on Hereford cows and then those F1s were bred Santa Gertrudis.

The Africaner has better carcass characteristics than the Brahman, so Barzona tend to be better finishers than straight Gerts. Red Brangus have a lot of desirable traits.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm quite late in commenting, but I thought you might be interested in this link:
It tells you how to evaluate individual cows by their outward characteristics, regardless of breed, as to whether or not they will "work" well on grass, have a long productive life, are easy to get bred back, etc.
I have been reading your blog for awhile now. My family also lives in Iowa and raises grass-fed everything (well not quite everything:)).
One more thing you might be interested in: THE BEST organic/natural farming/grazing magazine on the market is Acres USA (www.acresusa.com).
A subscription is worth every penny. We've learned so much there.


Ethan Book said...

Traci - Thanks for the link, I have looked at that site a couple of times but never run across that particular portion. Also, I'm all over Acres USA ... just waiting for the extra money to spend.

Also, I checked out your website ... looks pretty cool!

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