It’s all about Management

(I took this photo yesterday of our ranch, thats it in the middle. We were checking out some new leased land/grass, directly south and across the canyon from our place.)
It takes a lot of management to calve out a herd of cows. The more cattle involved the more management needed. I would like to give you an explanation into some of the day to day management of our cowherd.

Before calving starts, our herd is broken into and fed in 3 groups: pregnant animals, bulls and year-old future mothers. As time creeps closer to calving, we split the pregnant cows two ways, the 1st time mothers and anything that needs more care: underweight mothers or super old cows. The reason for this is to give the young and real old cows their fair share of the feed. When they are with the main cow herd they constantly get pushed away from the feed and overtime do not get enough. It is very costly to try and feed young cows with the main herd because no matter how much feed you give them, it all goes to the fat cows.
On February 1st, our 1st time calvers start calving. We start them two weeks earlier than the main herd to give them extra time to rebreed and also so they calve on the cleanest ground. It also helps when the rancher is fresh! When a calf is born, it is moved out of the pen and depending on the weather, goes into an indoor or outdoor pen. This pen is bedded with clean sawdust or straw. Each calf is closely monitored for the first 6 hours. Making sure it is standing, warm, and has nursed its mom’s colostrum. Sometimes a mothers teats are ‘waxed shut’ and it takes a good ranchers squeeze to get the milk flowing. At about 24 hours old, the calf will get an eartag, and if male will be castrated with a rubber band. When in full swing we are getting 10 to 12 calves per day. The new pairs spend 3 days, close to the barn under supervision, then they are moved out farther and put into groups. These groups are made according to the age of the cow and the age of the calf. We cap the groups between 50 and 75 pairs. It is very important NOT to put day old calves out with month old calves. The day old calves do not have the immunity yet to deal with this. They also can get lost in a big group and then do not get proper nutrition.
I’d like to give you a snap shot into our busiest day of calving:
The day is February 24th. Temperature minus 12 degrees celsius. The last calf born on the 23rd was at midnight. Went to bed after it was in the barn and we saw it was nursing. At 5:00 am the cows must be walked through and checked. There are 2 cows calving and because it is fairly cold out, they must be walked in. Since we are in full swing of calving, 2 newborns must be moved out of the barn and into the corral. Those pens are quickly cleaned, dusted with lime and bedded with new straw. The 2 calving cows are moved into maternity pens, which house a stanchion capable of restraining the cow in the event we need to help her. These babies should be born by around 7 am. We are constantly keeping track of who is calving and when they should be done. At 7 am the cow herd needs to be checked again. The barns are then cleaned and the day old calves are tagged and moved around the corral.
The 3 – 4 day old calves are moved out to the large pens with calf sheds. The object is to keep the corral as clean as possible and to keep calves and cows who need extra attention close by. If a cow has a tough birth and starts looking poor, she may need antibiotics. Now we start to feed yearlings, bulls and cow/calf pairs for the day. Throughout the day, the cows are walked through every two hours and ones that are calving are brought in and looked after. At 3 pm we feed the pregnant cows. We feed the pregnant cows in the late afternoon because we have found this helps them to calve in the daylight hours. By 6 pm we have had 10 newborns that day and are all nursing and doing well. We continue to check every 2 hours until about 11 pm. If all is quiet then, we go to bed. This routine continues for about 2 months on most ranches.
The reason this blog is about management is because it is all a carefully choreographed motion. Every action is carefully planned and has an important reason for doing it. If an daily chore is not done, it can/or will result in a lost calf. Sawdust and straw are stockpiled, soap, tags and vet supplies ready, pens are cleaned, cattle are moved everyday, all to ensure the smooth and safe arrival of the newborns.
At every moment we are watching the animals. We can immediately notice if a cow or calf is in distress or if something is off. You get so good at this, we will be driving down the highway and notice a neighbors cow and the problem!! This is also where ranchers intuition is very strong. Alarm clocks are not always used, sometimes you just wake up when it’s time.
At this moment, April 19th on our ranch, we are feeding 7 separate groups of animals.

Throughout the year, a ranch is continually being micromanaged. Decisions need to be made everyday for the future and the efficient operation of the ranch. Right now our fertilizer and seed has been purchased and our grazing plan is in place (we know where all the cows and calves are going for grazing throughout the year).

Ranches do not survive without a good manager.

~Erika Fossen~


A Game Changer

Our ranch just guaranteed the minimum amount of income we will make this fall. This is revolutionary for the ranching industry and a real game changer!

One of the major downfalls to having cattle, and making your income from selling cattle, is that you are dealing with a very volatile market. Circumstances completely out of your control sets what your product is worth. Throughout the year input costs (expenses) are fixed or rising, i.e. fuel, seed grain, machinery, etc. We could rely on the minimum expenditures, but up until yesterday in British Columbia, we could not rely on an estimated income.

In the last 14 years, we have seen violent swings in the market! In 2003 when a case of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) was discovered in Canada, our market crashed. I remember sitting in the auction market and saw a old mama cow go for a cent/pound! Which made her worth $12!! This spring a similar cow sold for $1500. Because of that catastrophic BSE event, the whole ranching and beef industry was devastated and billions of dollars where lost. It significantly played a part in the price of beef, because of closed borders, but there are many other factors that play a part in the price of beef too. These factors can be:
-The Weather: making a surplus or shortage of cattle feed.
-The US/Canadian $
-The availability of trucks and the weather during shipping.

It may be hard to understand, or appreciate what it feels like when your income is cut in half by nothing that you have or haven’t done. Imagine with your job that you do right now, if at the end of the year: 2/3’s of your pay check was not there! That is how it has been working with the cattle market. We did the work, but did not get paid equally for it. Our calves were born and grew beautifully; we worked the same as any other year to manage them, dealt with all the stresses of drought and expenses, but at the end of the year we made 1/2 of what we needed. To cover for the loss, many ranchers had to go get another job, working it as well as the ranch. This is how it has been for the ranching industry, especially since 2003. Writing this blog has made me very emotional as I try to articulate why this insurance is so important. It has brought up ‘penned-up stress’ of all the years wondering if we were going to be able to make a living.

The arrival of this insurance has made me realize two things, one: how thankful I am that we are now guaranteed a minimum income and two: how much our family was subconsciously stressed by dealing with unknown nature of volatile markets. I can’t tell you how revolutionary this insurance is for all of us.
~Erika Fossen~