Last spring we bought 6 heifers off of a feedlot. When they arrived they had been on hot feed…a high protein, high energy ration plus a little hay. This was evidenced by the whole kernel corn that passed straight through them and stuck to their manure-covered tails.
But they were short, their mothers grazed-ish on fescue-ish (with a little corn) and I gave them a shot. I mean, heck. Nobody around me does grass-only beef so what difference does it make? I bought local. I rolled the dice. They were good heifers in every respect, just not raised on grass.
Fast forward 10 months. Turns out half of my heifers didn’t breed. Half.
There’s the tall, thin, tall and (did I mention) really tall Miss White (19). She is always on high alert with her head in the air. She is also the boss. Here she was the day I looked at the heifers. See that head up high? Should have walked away from that:
Here she is again. Always on high alert. She needs to go. Beyond that, she has a hollow leg. When everybody else is laying down with eyes closed chewing cud she’s still up eating. Always eating. She’s just too big for grazing.
There is the tall, tall, tall 27. Her attitude is good and you could park a truck on her wide back but she just kept growing after she came home. Up, up and away. Cows need fat to cycle. She and 19 were too busy growing up and couldn’t grow out so they didn’t cycle. Further, neither of them shed completely out last summer…and they were hot. They may simply have been off duty when the bull was on duty. Or, if they did cycle, maybe they didn’t stand. Whatever. Both are just over 2 years old now. I could understanding giving 27 another chance with the scarcity of heifers right now. We’ll see.
Then there is 70. I don’t know what 70’s deal is. She is short and looks thin but not bad…but no dice. Maybe she didn’t like the heat of August. But there really are no second chances. I don’t need lawn mowers. I need reproductive lawn mowers. And I’m not sure I have ever noticed her calling or riding or anything. Maybe she is sterile. Dunno. Will she get a second chance? Heifers are in short supply now. I’m dithering.
These really should all be fattened on spring grasses and shipped before the bull arrives again in July. I am sure we can find customers for these cows (could be you!) and turn a modest profit for our effort but that wasn’t the goal. We need calves! Fertility is the real key. I want cows that fatten quickly, sure. I want cows with a positive attitude. Sure. I want cows that bring a live calf to weaning. Sure. But before we can concern ourselves with any of that, they have to at least breed successfully! So we select for cattle that achieve fertility at an early age and breed back every year. These three cows don’t fit the bill.
But I can’t neglect that I need cows that can succeed with our native forages. Cows that succeed without supplementation…beef without the petroleum. 111 and 41 are enormous tanks and 76 isn’t bad at all. I need an army of their offspring. If they don’t get fat they won’t breed. They need to fatten quickly after calving or they won’t breed back again. Some of that is on me. Some of that is the genetic potential of the animal. There is nothing I can do about genetic potential except to select for it over time.
It stinks that I have to cull half of my herd this year but by biting the bullet now I avoid this pain in the future.
This is precisely why all of the advice from veteran grazers is to buy genetics with a proven track record on grass. It’s going to be expensive to breed away from teacup cattle. These girls have history going against them. I’m facing an uphill battle making these work on grass alone. I think the next generation should be good as the bull was developed on grass alone. Also, the next generation will be pre-disposed to my home pastures due to phenotypic plasticity. (Bring that up at your next dinner party. “Oh, yes. Suzy is doing very well in school. Probably a result of phenotypic plasticity.”)
Maybe the cows aren’t to blame. Maybe it’s me. I’ll get better cows and I’ll get better at managing cows. It will just take time. I bought two more newly weaned heifers at the end of summer last year. We’ll see what happens with them but I suspect it will be the same percentage. I’m going to have to get better…but selecting foundational stock now ensures that my cows are all easy keepers.