Controlled Calving vs. Open Calving

Academia, paradigms, and many ranchers strongly advocate towards controlled calving so that cows receive the best nutrition available prior and during calving to increase productivity. Indeed, this is a very logical statement and practice in theory but does it really take into consideration the best and most profitable model for the open range? Especially in the desert or places with erratic unpredictable rainfall? Can you afford financially to have any open cows in your operation? In my experience, there have been many years when the rains are delayed or never arrive. Other times when temperature changes trigger unexpected high nutritional forage in the form of herbs and flowers and early spring growth that occur at times of the year when our cattle don’t capitalize from these benefits. The real question, are we really able to determine the exact and best time when our cows should calve or does nature know best?

There are many factors in nature that are out of our control and can severely hurt our calving rates even if we attempt everything in our power to prevent disaster. Needless to say, we have all been there. Every year ranchers want to know whether or not their cows will be pregnant.  Usually there is only success to be seen if you have made your goal herd health, optimal body condition and taking care of the land. This holds true regardless if there is controlled or open calving and here is why:

There are very few places on earth where weather patterns are consistent, rains are reliable, and temperatures are predictable. If you are fortunate to live in such a place, this article is definitely not for you. For the rest of us, especially in the southwest, we know all too well every year brings something new. Often time’s blessings but also some tears. When I first took over the family ranch I thought I had it all figured out. Exactly when my cows were going to graze, for how long in each pasture, when the cows were going to calve and how long I would release the bulls. The first three years we got hit by a drought and later by a record freeze in early spring that set our pastures back a full decade when it used to be continuously overgrazed by wild cows and feral donkeys. What had worked well in previous years all of a sudden seemed to be disastourous and any effort to impose my will on nature only led to failure. In the chaos of nature we continued to manage as if it were the same as before. Practicing green pasture calving, waiting to release the bulls until the herd had sufficient time to recover during what we thought was the best time of year, even supplementing protein when needed to improve forage digestion. But still we were not achieving the successes we were hoping for. At the rate we were going with low conception numbers there was little hope for herd expansion and the future profitability of the ranch. However, through these failures, I never stopped questioning who was to blame. Was it the cows fault or human ignorance?

The key to success lies on nutrition. It is the same reason why many disagree whether or not calving should be controlled or open throughout the year. So which one is it? My simple answer, do whichever one works for you, your specific goal and operation. In predictable environments (humid zones) or irrigated pastures controlled or open calving will work regardless of many mistakes because nutrition is available throughout or at an expected time of the year. Therefore, it is a very forgiving environment. In other environments where seasonal rains are guaranteed or if temperatures are very extreme and cyclical (harsh winters), controlling the pregnancy towards best nutrition will guarantee success year after year. In these same environments open calving wont matter much. Both systems will work because naturally the cows will control themselves. Just like many wild animals such as deer.

The more brittle the environment and the more unpredictable plant nutrition and growth is, the decision becomes more difficult because we are more likely to make mistakes and choose the wrong time of year. Nature is too erratic and the slightest changes will severely affect productivity. For example, two years ago we received three inches of rain in March. This was 20% of my annual moisture during a time of year I usually don’t get anything. This event spurred very productive growth as it fell during a time of the year where temperatures are cooler, reducing evaporation. To my surprise, those three inches of rain were more effective than the other six that fell in the summer due to temperature differences. Thus, the ranch had its best available nutrition during an out of season time.

Nutrition also comes in various forms and it may not necessarily be the best when we determine what our cows “should” be eating. It may be herbs, flowers, and palatable shrubs such as mesquite vine. All of these alternatives may actually provide better nutrition, especially natural protein, to the animals if we make it available to them, which is where good management comes in. These vegetative spurts of growth can be more nutritious than tall luscious grass. We often take this for granted because we fail to observe. I’ve seen cows eat cactus, yucca flowers and leaves with high tannin levels that we often think of as unpalatable. I have even seen them eat young prickly pear cactus in the spring when they tend to be delicate, and numerous herbs that cattle are more likely to ignore the rest of the year.

In brittle volatile environments we may have several years of successful controlled calving. But the year will come, mark my word if it hasn’t already, when it won’t rain; it may even last several years as I’ve experience. My hope in sharing our experiences and knowledge is that people will be more open to the idea of allowing your cattle to decide what is best for them both from the standpoint of nutrition and calving times. When you ranch in the open range you are at the mercy of many things and with a little observation I guarantee you many successful surprises. In my opinion, when weather is unpredictable calving should not be controlled. In fact, open calving may provide greater financial stability as we are finding out.

One positive aspect of open calving most often overlooked is the opportunity for the genetically superior animals well adapted to your environment to excel and outperform their piers. Well into my third year of uncontrolled calving I’ve collected data on individual cattle performance in my herd. Roughly 60% naturally have found the time of year they prefer to calve from July to October. This makes sense as it tends to be our rainy season and the land is more productive. The remainder of the herd is scattered throughout the year but maintain in optimal body condition contrary to common belief, due to alternate sources of food. There is always that bottom end of the herd that regardless of management are falling behind with 120 day recovery periods and those must be identified and cooled. What is surprising is how the best cows never lost their natural cycle and in some instances, 10% of the herd only had a 35-day empty period. After calving, these animals were able to regain body condition right away and the following year they calved up to two months sooner. Meaning they provided a calf faster than once a year. Eventually they speed themselves up to a point where nature wont allow them to keep going and they will go back to the best time of year, whenever that may be.

In the case of drought, nature might see fit that cattle will provide a calf after 13 or 14 months, depending on the severity of the drought. If controlled calving continues it will have unsatisfactory results during a dry spell. The interesting point I have observed is what happens the following year after a drought. When rains resume the best cows stayed the same and the rest calved later in the season in exceptional body conditions to the point where it is very likely once again they will speed up and catch the rest of the herd on the third year. This ability for cattle to speed up or slow down postpartum estrus is nature’s way to adapt to various environmental changes to nutrition. In unpredictable environments there might not be two of the same years in a row but that’s how nature controls what can be achieved. We find by keeping the bull’s year around we allow nature to take its course, make management easier, and provide for the best of the herd to excel their fellow herd members and form a league of their own. This to me is the most valuable information anyone staring a new herd could have because the top 10% of my cows show similar physical traits best suited for my own unique and particular environment and MANAGEMENT.  How else would you have distinguished good cows from excellent cows? The bad ones are always easy to spot.

On the heifers a similar situation arises where the best ones get pregnant at an earlier age. Some as soon as twelve months, and calve before or right at 24 months. Many maintained optimal body condition without supplementation and not a single one had calving complications (for the past two years). This demonstrates one can select the best animals for your particular situation at an earlier age. The replacement heifers become selected and breed naturally by the bulls before most other ranchers even consider releasing them. The rest, or empty heifers, can be kept or sold at a very high premium knowing already they wont be able to catch up with the rest of the super selected herd your are creating.

I hope this article gets people thinking about the possibilities and how backwards we tend to think at times. Nature knows best and we ought to listen, observe and learn. For those saying it’s extra work, it’s not true. I see my cows every day and the way I rotate throughout the property they are bound to go trough the corral several times a year. Branding and weaning become faster and easier to work with fewer people, headaches, and stress for my animals. Financially everything is for sale at all times. If the market wants pregnant heifers; I sell what I know is not performing as well. Not to mention typically pregnant cows are harder to find and yield a premium. Market wants empty cattle; I have those who are struggling each year. Market wants bulls; I have an inventory of all ages ready for sale. In the mean time all my steers keep gaining weight on the pasture rather than sitting in a bank account with poor interest rates. And away from my wife’s spending habits. 

What is the Ideal Size and Number of Pastures

Often we are asked the question, "How big are your pastures, how many do you have, and why not make them smaller?" In order to answer this one must understand some background in regards to our location and our personal experiences as they are the determining factors to our pasture managament. First, our ranch is located in the heart of the Chihuahaun desert in Northern Mexico. According to the jornada experimental range in New Mexico, the average precipitation for our area is 255mm (10 inches) per year. In my own opinion, there is no such thing as an average. As we have seen, we might receive all of our annual precipitation at once, none at all or in a lucky year consistently and effectively throughout the monsoon season. From our observations we can typically rely on having two good years out of a whole decade. From 2010 to 2013 we recived a total cumulative rainfall of 280 mm, less than 100mm (4 inches) per year. At the end of the drought, summer of 2013, we received 320mm (13 inches) in a single week, then nothing more for the rest of the year. Ask yourself if it is even possible to mantain your herd with those conditions in small pastures? Is it practical to plan for a three year rest period, as this is what nature gave us to work with? To our surprise it was possible to survive the three year drought but it took a lot of thinking outside the box. Obviously we had to destock more than 60% of the herd. We did it gradually as things got worse and this helped from a cashflow perspective instead of selling all at once. Secondly, we had to rotate pastures as many times necesary to stay alive. Our thoughts in doing so was to provide any available forage and seasonal growth to keep our animals and pastures in the best possible condition. 

Here are a few more details about our operation that aid in pasture management decisions. Our goal is to graze or introduce our cattle to areas they have never been before within our large pastures. Second, we manage only one group of animals which makes movements and planning easier. Also, by default you increase your rest time in all pastures. This also means that we do not have a controlled breeding season but rather, allow nature to determine when the best time to calve is. Next, we try to take advantage of every single growth event be it herbs, flowers, weeds, mesquite blossoms and vines and if lucky all grass types both perennial and annual, and warm season and cool season. Each pasture responds differently to moisture, temperature and offers a variety of vegetation. Lastly, as tough as this might sound, only the strongest survive; not only cattle but also man. We attribute our ability to stay afloat in the worst of times to larger pasture sizes and the flexibility to use our pastures for multiple rotations a year. Droughts are cyclical and will absolutely continue thus we are not interested in changing anything about our pasture sizes. We feel they are necessary to get us through those moment where we might not see any growth for 4+ years.

One must remember that animal density is a human unit of measure, not an animal one. In our experience, we find that although our pastures are large and may not receive the density "people" think they need, we see good results in regard to animal impact. Cows don't stand fixed in a single spot but rather are constantly in search for the best possible nutrition and are social beings, always wondering. Just because we are unable to see them neatly packed doesn't mean they behave as such when we are not looking. Some may sleep together at night, others may fight or play momentarily, others my scratch or dig for dust to remove flies, ect. They are creating animal impact at all times. A larger pasture doesn't mean insufficient animal impact. What it does mean is that we have to manage them by staying only sufficient times. This leads me to the second question related in this complicated discussion.

Is it really necessary to implement high animal impact at all times? I've seen vast areas of my ranch that have been overgrazed for more than 300 years. Some of these areas still have zero response to high animal impact. On the contrary, there are other areas the cows do their job year after year without having to put forth any effort on my part. There are also parts that have mature, overgrown grass that could use the impact and needs to be trampled. Let's take a further look at these points. If I have vast areas that aren't getting much or any benefits from high animal impact or where progress is slow and often insufficient to support the daily nutritional needs of my herd, then why would it be necesary to divide into small pastures? Wouldn't it be better to leave a larger pasture that has all three of the above scenarios? Thus aiding in the experience of a "salad bar effect" for your cattle. Not to mention the other money saving aspects of not invest in more fencing and water, and just let the cows do the work. Plus, there is the added benefit that your cows may be more grateful in the sence they have more space to explore, socialize, and feed high quality forage in order to mantain animal condition and reproduce. Honestly, how would you like it if you had to live in a bus full of people and have to fight for your fair share of food your whole life? Wouldn't it be less stressful and more productive to know you have enough space and food? If your cows are running out of pasture and eating as if they were starving im sorry to tell you that is stressful and not natural. In some environments or irrigated pastures forcing your cattle to eat everything works fantastic and cattle are able to meet their nutritional requirements and remain in top condition. However, for those of us in a brittle, dry, erratic, drought prone area it is not a reliable practice in our humble opinion on a year around consistent basis. Every pasture change should look like a walk in the park.

Going back to an earlier comment about trampling old matter. Here is a question for you, "how often and to what extent is trampling really necessary?" Most of us, including myself, have been told it ALL must be trampled. Come to find out it doesn't, and I would strongly advise you not to. What if it doesnt rain for 2 years and you have trampled everything to the bottom and are left with nothing to graze? When managing with nature one must always ask these what ifs. Cows may not go to certain areas during a growing season leaving the grass to mature and in some cases oxidize. It has little nutritional benefit to cattle however, it is ground cover and protecting the soil from erosion and other hash elements such as the sun. In nature animals may not graze certain areas but they might go back later in the season or even a couple of years later. If you allow sufficient grass to remain in this state, cows will return when they desire and will trample it and may also eat a little. In the case of coarse desert grasses such as toboso once spring hits things tend to green up a little and provide cattle with higher protein. They will naturally go for the new green tender growth while also getting a mouth full of dry matter. This combination allows their rumen to digest the old and the roughage to prevent them from loosing up. Thus, achieving several benefits without needing to trample 100% of pasture production. One benifit that is nice on the pocketbook is not needing to supplement with a protein source to help digest old unpalatable grass. Also, if a drought hits at least there is sufficient standing grass reserves throughout the property. This will allow for numerous rotations and a good drought management plan. Trust me, if a drought hits by the end of it the whole ranch will be trampled. So if you are hung up on the idea of trampling everything, it will happen in time. My conclusion is not to want to trample everything all the time. Leaving grass behind is an insurance policy for all the what ifs and it allows the flexibility to move around the property in order to reach those areas that may provide alternative sources of food or seasonal sprouts of growth. During a normal growing season it is important to treat areas in need of further animal impact via herding or portable polywire. You might be surprised by then the cows may have done most of the job on their own.

So the big question, "What is the best pasture size?" I would say all of them. In my most productive areas it is best and most manageable to be slightly on the smaller side. The average of our smaller pastures is 200 acres. On the contrary in the less productive areas we tend to keep the pastures large. Our average size for our large pastures is 1,500 acres. There isn't a real definitive answer to this question. My biggest advice for those wanting an answer is to constantly be monitoring your cows condition, behavior and recovery time to breed back. The longer you wait to come back to a pasture, or the longer the recovery period than necessary, the greater the need to supplement to avoid loss in condition. If you observe closely your cows will tell you what is working or not. One last thing I discourage many folks about is going crazy with fencing. We have achieved the same if not better results with fewer pastures. It can be argued that fencing is not natural therefore the more fences you put up and pastures you create, the less in line you are with nature. And on a personal note, I hate getting of my horse to open gates. The other reason there is no real answer is because each property/ranch changes so drastically from the next. In fact, within our own ranch each pasture requires different management practices and attention every season. This is the reason I will not discuss the exact amount of days our herd stays in our pastures because this number changes every single time. Some pastures can support the whole herd for 3 days and others can hold them for 3 weeks and still always leaving enough forage behind to come back. My grandfather used to say "When it rains the ranch is huge, but when it doesn't, the ranch becomes small". This concept is why I advise people to have sufficient pasture sizes to allow successful recovery, to focus on the more productive areas first, and its best to keep them bigger for those dry spells. After all, we can always implement portable subdivisions and herding when appropriate. This will mean less investments in fencing and extra resources available to invest in other areas be it infrastructure, genetics, water, ect. A cow can survive years on poor forage but only a couple of days with poor quality water. More often than not water is the real limiting factor for herd expansion and achieving the true potential of our most important resource, land.