Most people don’t typically think there are welfare issues in cow-calf operations, but there can be in certain situations. KC Olsen, PhD, Kansas State University, discussed some potential welfare challenges in cow-calf operations at the 2nd International Symposium on Beef Cattle Welfare at Kansas State. “Our biggest issues are weather, cattle being outdoors, preventing cattle diseases, and sometimes old age issues in cows because they can live over 10 years,” Olsen says.
Nutrition is also an issue, and involves range and pasture management and the production cycle management as well. “We can have malnutrition or subpar nutrition causes by stocking densities that are too heavy or too light,” he explains. “We might have a poorly conceived production cycle for a given environment. Sometimes genetics can exceed the poor environment as well.”
Olsen says when a pasture has too light a stocking density and plants reach reproductive maturity with seed heads, the quality is low for cattle. The same is true for the basal portion of plant. “When it’s grazed too heavy, what remains is stem material. A moderate level of defoliation is the most nutritious. Grazing management is where nutrition and animal welfare starts in cow-calf operation.”
We must also match the production cycle to the environment. Olsen said if the typical Jan-March calving were changed to an April calving so calving and lactation coincide with peak forage quality, numerous benefits could be realized, including:
- The cow nutrient requirements are minimal when forage quality is poor.
- It simplifies management of cow body condition.
- Calving occurs when winter weather events are unlikely.
- Feed savings are significant (more than enough to offset reduced weaning weights).
- August weaning will be a lighter calf, but the cow will put on more weight for winter.
Olsen says early weaning of calves at 150 vs. 210 days of age can be considered if calving is pushed later in the season. Calves will be about 70 lbs. lighter but seasonal price differences make up for much of the revenue shortfall. There is a significant feed savings and calves are weaned in warmer, drier, weather. “Early weaning can be a critical welfare intervention during drought,” Olsen adds.