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FARM & RANCH: Cooperate With Nature, WSU Tells Cow-Calf Producers

For a generation or more, cow-calf operators have been out of sync with Mother Nature, calving in the dead of winter in a single-minded drive to produce the heaviest possible weaning weights.

Besides working against natural biology, this popular mentality focuses on maximizing production instead of on maximizing profits.

After its cattle managers attended Washington State University holistic management workshops, an eastern Washington cattle company decided to make a radical change in its calving strategy.

Three years ago the company started calving on April 15 and calved for 60 days instead of its customary program of beginning calving on Jan. 15 and calving for 90 days.

As a result, the 700-head herd consumed 58 percent less supplemental hay per cow during the winter months, increased the conception rate by 8 percent, cut calving losses by 60 percent to 75 percent, and increased profits 300 percent in the first year. An added benefit was that ranch hands didn’t have to pull calves in winter snow storms or biting temperatures.

The ranch manager reported that his calving losses usually ran between 10 percent and 15 percent a year, and sometimes went as high as 20 percent. After the change, they dropped to 4 percent, measured from conception to weaning.

This record was achieved on a cross-bred range herd that calves without assistance on the range, except for heifers. Heifers are attended by cow hands while dropping their first calves.

“We’re changing the whole approach to cow-calf operations,” says Donald Nelson, WSU’s extension beef specialist. “Instead of substituting energy sources in the winter, we’re trying to get the cow to carry the energy reserves on her back, rather than to have them in a haystack and have to carry it out and give it to her.

“We’re meeting the nutritional requirements of the cow, but trying to get the cow’s natural cycle into synchronization with the forage cycle.”

This change in management strategies is an example of the new thinking Nelson is introducing to the livestock industry.

His workshops are so information intensive, they require several days for training. Some participants found the holistic management workshops so valuable they urged Nelson to expand the program.

So, Nelson is launching phase two, a series of three cow-calf workshops to be held this summer. Although producers will be able to register for a single workshop, Nelson will give preference to people who register for all three. He also will give preference to Washington producers.

Nelson is soliciting Washington producers through May 5, after which he will begin registering Idaho, Oregon and Montana operators.

A low-cost cow-calf production workshop taught by Dick Diven, Agri-Concepts, Tuscon, Ariz., will be held June 6-9 in Spokane. Registration will be $495 per person. Enrollment is limited to 30 persons.

A second workshop will be offered twice with the number of participants limited to 15 per session. They will be conducted June 19-21 and June 22-24. Participants will select one of the sessions. The topic will be Land EKG. The instructor will be Charley Orchard, of Land EKG Inc., Bozeman. The first session will be held on a ranch in northeastern Washington, the second session on a ranch in southeastern Washington. Registration will be $300 per person.

The third workshop, Body Condition Scoring of Beef Cows, will provide hands-on instruction by WSU faculty. It will be in Pullman. Registration will cost $50. Enrollment is limited to 30 persons.

For more information, call Nelson at (509) 335-2922 or e-mail him at

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