Community Ag Alliance: Year on cattle ranch
Most cattle operations in Routt County are cow-calf operations, which means the cow herd is maintained year-round, and a calf crop is sold in the fall. But there is so much more to it. Let’s look at the yearly cycle.
In December, the ranch has only cows and bulls on its land. The bulls are separated from the cows since the latter are already pregnant and in their second trimester. Their gestation period is identical to that of humans.
The ranch is feeding hay put up during the summer. Most ranches feed big, round rolls, since they feed easier in mechanical bale feeders hooked up to four-wheel-drive tractors. There are still some traditionalists in the county who feed using horses, but the number is low, since this method is labor-intensive and slow.
March rolls around, and ranches start calving season. Ranches in our county strategically choose this time of year. Areas around Hayden might choose February, while South Routt might choose April; the choices have to do with snow level.
Calving for older cows is simple. They do their thing on their own in the field, but heifers (first-time calvers) might need some help. Sometimes, the calf needs just a bit of a pull. Rarely is a vet called and usually only if a C-section is needed. The calf is licked clean, stimulating the calf to stand within minutes. The calf seeks milk, and then, the bond is made.
May sees the meadows lose their snow. The hay crop will begin to grow as soon as the daily temperatures rise, and this means cows need to come off. Cows and calves are taken to summer pastures in the hills.
June arrives, and romance begins. Bulls are turned out with cows, one bull per 20 cows, and they all comingle in a common pasture. There is a batch of replacement heifers, too — last year’s female calves that are now new cows for the herd. All the bulls will be taken out in late summer.
Ranches then turn their sites on the hay crop. Meadows with brome/timothy/clover grasses are irrigated by flooding ditches, while dry-land hay and alfalfa must rely on rainfall. Alfalfa is harvested first in mid-June, since it matures earliest; next comes dry-land hay, and last, are the irrigated hay meadows which usually are not ready to go until August. But hay season is not done yet; the alfalfa will yield a second cutting.
September is weaning time, when calves are pulled from their mothers. Steers (castrated males) and heifers (females) are separated. The ranch will look through its heifer calves, pick the best to keep as breed stock and sell the rest with the steers. The calves will be taken to a grow yard or more pasture as they adjust from being weaned.
From there, they go to a feedyard or wheat-grass pasture in the Midwest to grow to a weight of about 1,450 pounds, then to a meat-packing plant, to your grocery store and to your plate.
Krista Monger is president of Routt County Cattlewomen
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