BeefTalk: Good Cattle-working Facilities Should be a High Priority

By: Kris Ringwall, Beef Specialist

Much debate surrounds this question: “How many times should a cow be in a

The answer rests with the objectives of each management structure. Yet, setting
aside the concept of survival of the fittest, producers do need to gain access
to individual cows at some point.

Some producers have corrals but no defined working facilities and no chutes;
thus, the cows never enter a chute. Other producers gather cows once, when
separating the current year’s calf crop, and the cows may not see the chute.

In fact, some might say once is too many, and you should sort calves off as

Generally, cows that need to be culled need to be sorted. Many cattle producers
gather cows and calves, wean, pregnancy check, sort and send the cows back to
pasture or winter paddocks. Producers who vaccinate their cows put the cows
through the chute prior to breeding and perhaps prior to calving.

As pairs are moved to summer pasture, the calves may be worked, but generally,
the cows are not run through a chute. Producers using artificial insemination
may work the cow two, three or more times, depending on the synchronization
schedule utilized and how a producer handles the cleanup breeding.

So, depending on management, cows may come into a chute zero to six times a
year: once for weaning and pregnancy checking, twice for vaccinations and three
times for breeding.

At the Dickinson Research Extension Center, cattle are worked quite frequently
because we need to collect data for research projects. But, as the center has
shifted from intensive cattle production to extensive cattle production, certain
managerial questions arise. The first question for the purpose of general
management is: “How often are the cows gathered?”

One driving point, herd health, requires the cows to be in the chute twice a
year. Essentially, mature cows should have a pre-calving vaccination protocol as
well as a pre-breeding vaccination protocol, with both dates dependent on the
calving season.

For the center, bull turnout is Aug. 1, with a May 10 expected start of the
calving season. The mature cows receive pre-calving vaccinations in late March
and pre-breeding vaccinations in early to mid-July. The early to mid-July
vaccination coincides with pasture rotation as the cows finish their first
rotation off a twice-over grazing system. This timing allows for appropriate
time prior to bull turnout, according to the vaccine label.

The third time the cows would be in the chutes at the center would be the
conclusion of the summer grazing twice-over system in mid- to late October. For
most cattle producers, this time would be an opportunity to process the calves
and weigh, condition score and pregnancy check the cows. For some herds, calves
are weaned at this time, but for many herds, the cows and calves simply are
returned to a late-fall pasture such as crop aftermath, and the calves are
weaned at a later date.

The center has switched from a November weaning date to a mid-December weaning
date for the 2- and 3-year-old cows (cows with their first or second calf) and a
mid-January weaning date for the older, more mature cows. We hope this will give
calves an introduction to winter alongside their mothers, and time to adjust to
the colder weather and increase their willingness to readily consume harvested

Another advantage is labor. With May-born calves, traditional weaning in
November increases the labor requirement. When freshly weaned calves are not
sold directly at weaning, owner responsibility for care greatly increases. By
delaying weaning until after the holidays and into mid-January, the labor fit is

Some even would say we could go longer, but the center has the facilities to
bring calves home for three-plus months for 1 to 1.5 pounds per day gain from
forage diets prior to going out to crested wheatgrass the first of May. The
target is to have steers on the rail at 22 months of age and breed yearling
heifers in August. Both goals are achievable on forage-based diets.

The bottom line: Producers need to plan ahead for cattle-working days, even in
extensive beef operations, and make an investment in good, secure cattle-working
facilities. If cow-calf operations have an obvious weakness, it oftentimes is
that the working facilities are simply not sufficient.

Actually, the discussion of working cows is irrelevant if facilities don’t
exist. Perhaps, given the good calf prices the last couple of years, investing
in cattle facilities would be a good choice. It is good for the cattle and the
people who work the cattle.

May you find all your ear tags.

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