Last year we weaned our calves late, and kept them over winter due to the exceptional season we were having. We made it work, partly because of the abundance of feed, and partly because we were rebuilding our numbers to around 15 breeding cows (https://rockfarming.com/2021/06/06/weaning-on-the-rock-farm/).
This year we have chosen a slightly different tact. We have decided to wean our calves before winter, to reduce the nutrition requirements for the cows, and to reduce the pressure on our pastures. The final stimulus however came when I saw there was a special weaner sale upcoming at our local sale yards – which spurned us to action.
Always eager to continue to improve our weaning system, I consulted a couple of wiser and more experienced heads than mine. John explained that he taught the calves to eat hay, buy first putting them in the yards with their mothers. The cows feed from the hay and teach the calves to eat it too. My other mentor Mac explained that the fences have to keep the calves from getting back to their mothers. They don’t have to stop the cows getting back to their calves!
We brought all the cattle into the yards, and spent a couple of days feeding them. The cows who were with us during the drought remembered the sound of the tractor (Pavlov could just as easily have done his conditioning experiments with hungry cattle!). We gave them access to a small paddock adjoining the yards giving them plenty of space to spread out.
A couple of days later we drafted the cows back to another adjoining paddock / lane where they could feed, but come back and visit the calves when they desired. The weaners all then got the latest fashion accessory (a beautiful white NLIS ear-tag). This RFD chipped tag allows the animals and their meat products to be traced back to the Rock Farm. This helps ensure Australian Beef is internationally recognised as being fully traceable throughout the entire supply chain.
The first few hours of separation saw calves and cows happily feeding, however by evening time, the udders filled. The cows returned to the yards and bellowed at the calves, and the calves bellowed at their mothers. This process repeated morning and night for around a week or so, but the intensity reduced quickly – and I felt it didn’t take long for me to feel that the cows were more interested in the hay I was delivering and not the calves!
The hardest part then came in choosing which weaners get on the truck and go to sale. In the end we sold all seven of the steers, and four of the heifers. The steers averaged 290kg, which was a great result considering they were only 7 months old or so. We kept four heifers, bringing our total head on the Rock Farm to 20. Our present holding comprises of 15 cows, 1 maiden heifer due to calve this spring, and our latest 4 weaner heifers.
We will reassess our stock holdings in Spring, but will be likely to sell some cow and calf units before next Summer. It all depends on rainfall, which is our largest determinant of carrying capacity (despite what the fertiliser company tells me). Whilst I love our cattle, I am also very conscious of being a custodian of the soil, and I need to put the need of the soil first. Healthy soil will lead to healthy cattle.
Special thanks to John and Mac for the advice, and a shout out to Jimmy and Kylie who loaded and trucked our weaners to the sale yards in my absence.