It was mid-June, but calving season was a week or so from wrapping up at Herb and Bev Hamann’s Blue Bell Ranch in Clear Lake, South Dakota. The ranch on the Coteau Prairie of far eastern South Dakota is operated by the Hamanns and their children, Breck Hamann and Arla Poindexter. Their philosophy of working with nature to manage the sensitive grasslands made them this year’s winner of the South Dakota Leopold Conservation Award.
That same philosophy plays into the way they approach calving season. The Hamanns calve later in the spring than many operations. Most of the Simmental-Angus calves they raise are born in May, and they say it makes sense for the cattle and the workers.
Herb Hamann, 87, is the first to point out that weather is the main factor that prompted them to push calving back to late spring. The Hamanns and their cattle aren’t fighting weeks of snow storms, cold and mud when calves are dropping. It’s nearly eliminated problems with scours in their newborn calves, he said.
Poindexter admits that this isn’t the year to brag about the advantages of May calving. The first day of the month brought several inches of snow. It didn’t last long, but temperatures were unseasonably cold.
The up side when wintery weather comes in May is that it doesn’t drag on for weeks like it can in February and March. When there are poor conditions that stretch into late spring, the Hamanns don’t have as many calves to keep watch over.
At the time of the May 1 storm, they had about 20 calves to keep watch over instead of the 300 or so they would have if calving started earlier.
This year, the first calf was born April 24, and the last calf came before July 1.
The Hamanns are convinced that late calving helps make better mothers.
Pregnant cows are accustomed to walking and foraging, giving them exercise that makes them more fit for calving. Grazing also gives them better nutrition.
They calve on grass instead of in a barn. Left alone, the Hamanns said a mother’s instinct will kick in and she’ll give her calf better care.
“Nature kind of takes over,” Poindexter said. “She’s almost more like a wild animal.”
They check their cattle each morning and at sundown. Poindexter estimates they have to help pull one out of every 10 first-calf heifers. They pull between 1 and 2 percent of calves out of cows, usually when they’re not presented right or twins are tangled in the womb.
Late calving also helps preserve the pastures at the Blue Bell Ranch.
They’re able to change grazing patterns when the grass needs it, and they don’t have to haul the cattle to the pastures.
Later in the season when pastures start to get more sparse, the smaller calves are easier on the grass.
You don’t have big March calves and their mothers on a pasture, Poindexter said.
“You’re kind of saving grass when grass is growing,” she added.
They turn the bulls out for breeding July 27, as the cows are moved to a new pasture of fresh grass.
Quality grass plays a big role in cattle health. This year’s grass is helping mothers grow strong to produce next year’s calf crop.
“The next calf is already started,” Poindexter said.
One concern some producers have about late calving is in conception rates. They worry that when cows are bred in the hot summer months, the pregnancy won’t take.
In North Dakota, the Dickinson Research Extension Center has been calving in May since 2012. Their data show the pregnancy rate for cows bred to calve in March was 98.96 percent while cows bred to calve in May was 98.23 percent.
The Hamanns said they have no problems with conception either. It helps, they said, that their pastures provide ample standing and running water where the cattle can cool off.
Predator control is another advantage to late calving. Coyotes are less of a problem later in the season, too, Herb Hamann pointed out. By the time the calves are born, pocket gophers are running rampant in the pastures, and the coyotes are well fed with an easy snack.
The Hamanns have been calving in May for about 10 years. One complaint Herb Hamann has is that its difficult to find help when they’re ready to work cattle and vaccinate the calves.
They try to find a day in July when it’s not too hot to stress the cattle. But at that time, the help is more interested in haying and taking advantage of the summer day for farming work or fun. read more…