Winter was reluctant to relinquish its death grip on Saskatchewan this year, leaving ranchers with dwindling feed supplies and delayed pasture growth.
"We heard a lot from producers right before the snow was melting there. People were getting a little concerned because they were running short on feed, quality was low. They were looking for additional supplementation and there wasn't a lot to be had out there," says Naomi Paley, a livestock specialist in Yorkton for Saskatchewan's agriculture ministry.
But beef producers can take steps to keep their cows in good condition, boost weaning weights, and protect pasture from overgrazing. Here are six tips from Saskatchewan Agriculture's livestock specialists to do just that:
Evaluate body condition
A cow's body condition can be scored on a scale of one to five, with one being emaciated and five being grossly fat.
Jenifer Heyden of Saskatchewan Agriculture in North Battleford says ideally, mature cows should have a body condition of 2.5 at calving. Heifers should rate a three. Thirty days before breeding, 2.5 is ideal for both cows and mature heifers.
Eyeballing body condition is difficult, especially when cattle have winter coats. "It's a hands-on measurement and I think that's sometimes what people forget," says Heyden.
Cows with a body condition of three will have noticeable fat on the tail head, but the areas beside the tail head won't be rounded. Producers will be able to feel short ribs when they press on the ribs.
At a 2.5, producers will be able to feel the short ribs, but not put a thumb between them and count them individually.
Animals sitting at a two will have some fat covering the short ribs, but producers will be able to feel individual ribs.
Details on body condition scoring are available on Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development's website.
Cows with a body condition score of two or lower at calving and through lactation will have production problems. For example, they may have calves with lower birth weights, less colostrum, poor quality colostrum, and less milk. They also take longer to rebreed and have lower pregnancy rates, Heyden says.
Producers shouldn't let cows dip below body condition scores of two.
"If you were at a body condition score of less than two, it's going to be almost impossible to feed those cows well enough between calving and breeding to have a positive effect on fertility and reproduction," says Heyden.
Fatten thin cows
Flushing involves feeding a concentrate to thinner cows. It helps them regain body condition. Flushing also signals that nutrients are plentiful, encouraging the cow's body to cycle.
Flushing usually begins two to four weeks before breeding season, and continues for 30 days into breeding season.
If a cow rates a two in body condition, feeding her five pounds of barley per day will boost her to 2.5 within about 60 to 65 days. Feeding her eight pounds per day will allow her to reach 2.5 within 45 to 50 days.
Feeding barley or pellets will bring cows up to condition faster than oats. But producers should avoid feeding excessively.
"You don't want them to put on too much fat too fast, and to put it on in the wrong places," says Heyden. Cows can deposit extra fat into mammary tissue if they're overfed, and can also have trouble calving.
"If they're carrying excess fat, they're probably not as interested in breeding, either," says Heyden.
Heyden says flushing doesn't work well with cows that are already in good condition.
If possible, producers should delay spring grazing. "Depending on the type of grass that you have in your pasture, for every day that you delay (grazing) in the spring, you can get up to two days of grazing in the fall," says Chelsey Carruthers of Saskatchewan Agriculture at Watrous.
Delaying grazing leaves more plant material to photosynthesize and grow. Early pasture growth may not meet cows' nutritional requirements either, as they're often in late gestation or lactating.
A Saskatchewan Agriculture factsheet recommends delaying grazing until plants are in the third or fourth leaf stage.
Ranchers might not be able to delay grazing, especially with the long winter and feed shortage this year. If producers have to graze pasture early, they should move cattle often and rest the pasture so plants have a chance to recover. The rest period is particularly important, says Carruthers.
Carruthers says the rest period needed depends on grass type and how many cattle grazed. But ideally, if pasture was grazed early, it would be rested for 90 days or until the season's end.
"Or maybe even until next season if you have enough pasture," says Carruthers.
Make sure calves are born early
Having calves born early is one of the most basic ways of boosting weaning weights, says Naomi Paley.
"Usually a calf gains about two pounds a day. And so older calves are going to be heavier at weaning time and are going to bring you more money," says Paley.
As a general rule, about 70 per cent of calves should be born in the first cycle, and another 20 to 25 per cent in the second, says Paley. Any tail-enders will calve in the third cycle.
Meeting the cow's nutritional needs is the first step to getting cows to calve in the first or second cycle.
If a cow still calves in the third cycle despite having her nutritional needs met, culling is an option.
Creep feeding gives calves extra energy and nutrition while they're at pasture, and Paley says calves can gain an extra 25 to 60 pounds by weaning.
"This is going to be especially true for cows that have come through the winter a little bit compromised in terms of body condition," says Paley.
Thin cows may not producer enough milk, so creep feeding can help calves gain. It also prolongs pasture, as calves won't need to graze as much.
Paley says producers should introduce creep feeding early so calves learn to access the feed. Once the calf reaches 90 days, the cow is only producing enough milk to meet about half the calf's nutritional needs for maximum growth.
"The quality of pasture starts to decline later in the season, too, so that's when it's really critical," says Paley.
Producers can buy pre-mixed creep feed or make their own from simple recipes that include ingredients such as whole oats, canola meal, and minerals.
Heyden, Carruthers and Paley host a webinar on May 22 from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. Producers can register online for the Feeding for Productivity and Profit webinar, or call the province's Agriculture Knowledge Centre at 1-866-457-2377 for more information.
-- Lisa Guenther is a field editor for Grainews at Livelong, Sask. Follow her @LtoG on Twitter.