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Calving the Heifers Last Works on this Ranch

By Larry Thomas • Originally Published in January 2002 edition of Canadian Cattlemen magazine

Flip through pretty well any beef cow-calf manual and you'll come across a recommendation that most ranches have adopted: breed the heifers so they'll calve 20 to 45 days ahead of the cow herd. But for as long as they can remember, the women of the Wise Ranch, near Irricana, Alta., have opted for a different approach. They calve their replacement heifers when the bulk of the cow herd has already dropped, mothered-up and gone to pasture. The Wise approach to  replacement management is a testament to how unique each ranching operation is, and how sticking to convention may not fit into the overall plan. 


The reason people usually calve heifers ahead of the cow herd is because these yearling females are still growing when  they deliver their first offspring. That means the nutrition they take in must be divvied up between growth, milk production  and getting reset to rebreed. That turnaround time from calving to first notable cycling runs 45 to 60 days. Breeding the virgin heifer so she'll calve maybe 45 days ahead of the cow herd gives her some time to catch up, meet that nutritional challenge and rebreed so she'll be on more or less the same reproductive schedule as the cow herd by the next season. That schedule makes a lot of sense for a commercial cow-calf operator selling weaned steers and feeder heifers in the fall.  But the Wise Ranch has a little different system and, thus, a different schedule.


In 1954, Leta Wise and her late husband R.B., moved onto the summer ranch southeast of Irricana that belonged to her father E.J.C. Boake. From their arrival until 1969, they raised purebred Shorthorn cows and brought 4 daughters into the world.  During the continental cattle invasion of the late '60s through the '70s, they moved out of Shorthorns and into a custom-cow raising business. By the mid'70s, they were beginning to build a new herd of purebred Maine-Anjou cows alongside the custom-cow operation.


They also ran a 300-head bull test from 1976 through 1986 in which Limousin, Blonde d'Aquitaine, Salers and Maine-Anjou bulls were enrolled. 


Today, Leta and her daughters, Deanna (Dede) and Dallas, operate the ranch with some help from sister Della and her husband, Ron, who is a contractor. They run just over 100 purebred cows, mostly black Maines, on 600 acres of native range and 200 acres of hayland. They went into black Maines in 1985 using semen from the U.S. black Maine bull DF Midas. They sell bulls and some females off the ranch, mainly to commercial cattle producers. Since they have the pen space and facilities built for the test station and custom-cow business, selling by private treaty makes the most sense for them, says Leta. They shut down the bull test and custom-cow operations in the '80s, but still put their own bulls on an 84-day home test to drum up performance data for buyers who drop in.


The breeding/calving program


The Wise Ranch, like many purebred operations, usually sells about one-third of their bottom-end males and females off  the cow at weaning through the auction market. Using A.I. and natural service to bulls they've bought or raised on the ranch, they raise their own replacement heifers. As far back as they can remember, they've been breeding the virgin heifers to calve from the first week of March through to mid-April. The cows calve from February 1 through to the end of March."It's funny, we don't consider calving the heifers last, after the cows, as being unique at all. It's what we've always done," says Leta. "We'd just as soon get the cows out of the way earlier, then look after the heifers." This could be a little more appealing, too, on the weather side, having the heifers dropping calves when it's a bit warmer. But the Wise family doesn't view it that way. By the time their virgin heifers are bred they're 13, maybe 14 months of age. There's another rule of thumb -a heifer should be at least 65% of its mature body weight when first bred. The Wise women reckon their heifers will be closer to 75% or 80% of mature body weight at first exposure. Compared to the same females bred at 12 months of age to calve ahead of the cows, their more mature heifers carry 75 to 150 more pounds to their first mating. Their heifers today are mostly bred to Black Angus bulls, most by A.I. "You have to key on how old our heifers are when we're breeding them," says Dede. "We look at their maturity. We want them more mature, heavier and in great shape come calving time so they'll calve and come back to breed quickly."


Nutrition critical

The Wises rarely have trouble getting these first-calf heifers to come around and breed back on schedule alongside the cows. "We pay very close attention to the nutrition and feed management of the females here," says Dallas. "Our cows already have good milk production - that's in them already - and we focus on feeding them high-quality hay." They also get their share of 19:19 mineral, a 13% barley-based range cube and plenty of vitamins A, D and E.


“About30 days before the calving is slated to start, we get the cows and heifers on the very best feed we have," Leta explains. "That boosts their energy and protein input so they're ready to calve and get back cycling." "Even before the 30-day, pre-calving period, their cows don't suffer much," Dede adds, tongue-in-cheek.


Closer to calving time, the females are brought in from the pasture and penned into smaller groups for observation. 10 days before calving, the females are penned in tight to the calving barn where most of them will calve out. In that barn the Wises have installed pens, 2 closed-circuit cameras for monitoring and a squeeze chute, which they rarely need. Assists, even on the heifers, are rare. About the only glitch they encounter is the odd backward calf or some other malpresentation. After the cows and heifers calve, they begin a pretty rapid pen and paddock rotation. They're penned for a day or 2 to mother up, then moved promptly to a larger, cleaner pen, then quickly out to a larger field. "We circulate these pairs out for a couple of reasons," says Dede. "We can't keep a lot close around the barn just because of space, and we don't want to anyway. The idea is to get them out on clean ground as quickly as possible." Thanks to this quick rotation, it's not surprising that the Wise Ranch has had no scours outbreaks. As a result they 

don't vaccinate cows for scours prior to calving, although the cows do get a shot of Breed Back 9/Somnugen about 3 

weeks before they go in with the bulls, and the calves get an 8-way clostridial vaccination in July. The herd is weaned

at the end of August or in early September – depending on the condition of the range which provides most of their forage.

The Wises don't aim for a tight rebreeding cycle on these first-calf heifers, but seem to do well just the same. Maybe 20% 

of the first-calvers will be bred on their first cycle, and the bulk will be settled by the second heat. They put these young 

females in great shape before sending them out with the bulls in late May. Most are bred in this May/June time frame, 

maybe a few into early July. The bulls are out from late April through to mid-July - a 75 to 80-day breeding period. "And 

we still see the majority of our calves out of second-calvers and cows come in the first-and-second-cycle period. We don't 

have a lot of stragglers," Dede adds.


This may be the key point, which sets the Wise Ranch heifer program apart. They keep the bulk of their calves and 

develop the bulls and the best females at home so they aren't focused on weaning feeder steers and heifers for a 4

fall sale. Even if they were, it's likely they would find some innovative market that would allow them to keep calving 

their heifers after the cows. "It's just something we've always done and it works well for us," says Leta. "I guess it's 

just a matter of being comfortable with a system you're familiar with. We make it work by paying attention to the 

nutritional needs of our heifers and cows."

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