Canadian Cattlemen's Association

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Cow-Calf Production Management

Here are some of the ways that farmers and ranchers care for the cattle on their beef cattle cow-calf operations.

While cattle on cow-calf operations spend most of their lives in the great outdoors, that does not mean they are without shelter. Cattle must be protected from adverse weather conditions, such as blizzards and storms, or extreme heat.

The pastures most prized by farmers and ranchers have natural shelter areas, such as stands of trees and bushes, or gullies and valleys. These natural shelters provide enough protection for the cattle to remain comfortable.

On pastures where no natural shelter is available, the farmer will often construct an artificial shelter, such as a wooden structure, that provides shade or that the cattle can get behind to protect themselves from the wind. Cattle are very good at finding the spots that get them out of the elements.

Calving Areas
When cows are calving farmers spend long hours checking on the well-being of the cows and newborn calves. Cows that are about to give birth are checked regularly from a distance. This prevents the cow from being overly disturbed or stressed, but also allows the farmer or a veterinarian to step in to help if the cow is unable to give birth unassisted.

Both for the farmer's convenience and to ensure medical facilities are available if needed, cows that are about to give birth are often herded into an area close to the farmer's home. This is known as the calving area.

Calving areas are kept clean and dry to prevent the spread of disease to the newborn calves. Shelter is provided so that both cows and calves are protected from the elements. Bedding, such as straw, is also provided to keep the cows comfortable. Nature is allowed to take its course unless the farmer sees that a cow needs assistance in successfully giving birth and caring for her calf.

Feed and Water
For the first months of their life, beef calves usually get all their nutrition from their mother's milk. The cow herd gets its nutrition from pasture grasses and other plants in the summer and hay (dried grasses and plants) in the winter. These grasses and plants are referred to as forages.

Cattle are ruminants, meaning they have four stomachs. These four stomachs permit them to digest plants such as grass that are indigestible by humans or even single-stomached livestock such as swine. The land used for pasture is usually too hilly, infertile or otherwise not suitable for growing food crops. Thus through cattle, farmers are able to produce high quality food for people on land that would otherwise be unusable. <<suggestion - illustration or link here that shows diagram of cattle digestive system>>

On a cow-calf operation, cattle move about grazing at leisure. The calf sticks close to its mother so it can easily return to her side for a meal of milk. The farmer keeps a close eye on the condition of the grass and the body condition of the cattle, to ensure the cattle are getting enough nutrition to continue growing and reproducing well. Many farmers practice rotational grazing whereby cattle are moved to different grazing pastures. This is to provide cattle with an ongoing supply of grass to eat plus it also keeps the pasture and soil healthy. If there is a serious shortage of grass (such as in times of severe drought) hay will be provided to the cattle.

Fresh water is also essential for the health of cattle. The farmer ensures the cattle have access to water at all times.

Minerals and vitamins essential for the health and growth of beef cattle are found in the forages they eat, but sometimes not at optimal levels. Minerals and other nutrients are made available to cattle on pasture, often in the form of a free-choice salt lick.

When calves are getting old enough to be weaned they will sometimes be offered a supplement known as a calf starter. This good-tasting, high nutrition feed gets the calf's rumen ready to start digesting forages and encourages the calf to try eating on its own.

Health Management
The farmer regularly checks the well-being of cattle on pasture to ensure they are healthy. Usually little intervention is required. On the rare occasions that an animal is found to be injured or ill, it is separated from the rest of the herd for treatment. Either the farmer will treat the animal with an over-the-counter remedy available from a farm supply store, or the services of a veterinarian will be called in.

By following best management practices, most injuries and illnesses can be prevented.

Preventative Health
Responsible animal care such as providing adequate food, water and shelter will prevent most illnesses and injuries. There are some additional interventions that farmers often take to ensure the health and safety of the herd.

Vaccination has been used to prevent disease in humans and livestock for over 100 years. Vaccination stimulates the person or animal's immune system with an infectious agent, or components of an infectious agent, that has been modified to prevent the vaccine from causing the disease. Once the person or animal's immune system has been adequately stimulated, they will not catch the disease against which they have been vaccinated. Re-vaccination is often required for adequate protection.

The types of vaccinations that are given to cattle depend on the types of diseases that are common in the areas in which they live. The farmer will decide which vaccinations to use, often in consultation with a veterinarian.

Some of the diseases against which cattle may be vaccinated include:
  • Clostridial diseases
  • Infectious Bovine Rhinotracheitis (IBR)
  • Bovine Virus Diarrhea (BVD)
  • Pasteurella
  • Vibriosis
  • Anthrax

Castration and Dehorning
While vaccination and adequate feed and water help prevent disease, other interventions when animals are young help prevent them from injuring one another when they mature.

Sexually mature male animals frequently fight one another to establish dominance. This can result in serious injuries. It also makes handling mature male cattle (bulls) more dangerous for the farmer and his or her family. Male calves that are not going to be used for breeding are usually castrated at a young age (prior to six months) to prevent fighting and to make them safer to handle.

Other than the Aberdeen Angus breed and special breed strains genetically selected not to grow horns (known as polled cattle), both male and female cattle grow horns. When they mature, cattle with horns can seriously injure one another. They can also injure the people who care for them. For this reason calves are dehorned at a young age (prior to three months), either surgically or with a special corrosive paste, when their horns are just beginning to form.