March 4, 2018
One unfair advantage of being located in deep south Texas is an early spring. Calves that were wintered on their dams were recently weaned at 10 months of age. In most cases, their dams had already weaned them for me. This past winter was unusual. Several cold fronts resulted in freezing temperatures and one blizzard even resulted in over 6 inches of snow! Although I had stockpiled forage in all the pastures last fall in preparation for winter grazing, the freezing temps did damage the grass and reduced the forage quality. In a couple of herds where cows were wintering heifer calves (most bull calves had already been weaned and sold for breeding), I did decide to feed range cubes in order to keep cows’ body condition at a minimum score of 5 while still raising their calves. Although range cubes were fed, since January 1 the total feed costs averaged only $6.12 per cow. Also, no hay was fed. About one month ago I stopped feeding cubes when there was enough green grass and forbs to meet the cow’s protein needs. Below is a photo of wintered heifers taken in early January which shows the low quality forage. The other photo was taken on March 5 of a cow that had wintered her heifer. Cows now have 2 months of grazing green grass before they calve in May.
January 20, 2018
Some readers my find the set of graphs particularly interesting, which were updated after closing the books on 2017. The first one involves trend for total costs per cow, which have dramatically decreased through better grazing management and by utilizing more adaptable genetics. The second graph shows stocking rate (SR) trend over the past 17 years. Hay has not been fed for over 16 years. The graph speaks volumes about drought management and management in general. First, between 2001 and 2004, the ranch was transitioning between traditional overstocking and continuous grazing towards an implemented rotational grazing system. The initial key decision was made in 2001 to reduce SR (more acres per cow). Because of the adverse effects of past poor grazing management, a few years were required for pasture health to recover. After 2004, pastures were in better condition (quality and quantity) so SR was increased (fewer acres per cow). Then starting in 2009 were years of extreme to exceptional drought. In 2013, SR was reduced (i.e., more acres per cow) to be more conservative on forage resources – mostly achieved by moving cows to temporary leases and selling 20% of the cow herd (mostly older cows and cows that made too much milk). In late 2014 and throughout 2015, ample rains returned and pastures gradually began to recover. In response, in 2015 the SR was increased from 16.0 to 12.2 acres per cow and in 2017 stood at 9.1 acres per cow. What is perhaps most interesting over these years is that as SR has been reduced (more acres per cow) the pounds of beef in weaned calves and profit per acre (last two graphs) have both generally increased in more recent years following a drought management plan and having adaptable cattle which continue to improve in performance.
June 29, 2017
Star bulls at 13 months of age were fertility tested by a local veterinarian. (This veterinarian has previously purchased two Star bulls which are now his main herd sires.) The bulls who have been developed only on milk and grass easily passed the Breeding Soundness Examination. In mid-July they will be turned out with heifers and cows. Several AI and natural service sires will be used this year. One of the bulls that was fertility tested is shown in the photo below. His breed composition is 43.8% Red Angus, 18.8% Senepol, and 37.5% Tuli. His paternal grand sire is PCC R2R Simon (Red Angus) and his maternal grand sire is Honey Bear (Tuli). He is also homozygous (2 copies) for the slick gene which he inherited from his Senepol ancestors. Needless to say, as a composite his performance will be boosted by considerable hybrid vigor.
May 31, 2017
All cows except one calved between April 18 and May 28. Pregnancy rates for cows and heifers were 97.0 and 100%. The 45-day breeding season was between mid-July through August of last year. Average birth weight for all calves born was 69.6 pounds. No heifers had to be assisted at calving. Heifers were wintered on their dams until 10 months of age and were bred 4 to 5 months later. For years, Star cattle only graze forage without being fed hay or given energy or protein supplements. Below is a photo a 14 year-old Star cow who has produced 13 calves (left), a Star cow in her prime (middle), and a 2 year-old Star heifer with her first calf (right).
Bull #17 dam (age 3 years)
April 14, 2017
In another month it will be calving time. Below are photos of cows that will be calving who wintered and later weaned their 10 month-old calves in early March. Since then they have been grazing early spring grass to replenish their body condition, although some were already at a BCS of 7 when they weaned their calves. This past winter, no energy or protein supplements were fed, only free-choice minerals. Only stockpiled forage and some winter forbs were grazed. For generations, cows have been teaching their calves to graze predominantly Kleberg Bluestem (aka King Ranch or KR Bluestem), a species that when dormant is highly unpalatable and indigestible. Hay has not been fed in over 15 years. The following quote is highly relevant:
“We’ve just completed studies showing that calves exposed in utero to high fiber diets both consume and digest high fiber foods such as wheat straw better than calves exposed in utero to low fiber diets. Greater digestible dry matter intake is important for pregnant cows and their offspring that winter under extensive conditions on dormant forages where their energy requirements are only marginally satisfied for many months. Those cows and their offspring are likely better adapted to using dormant forages during winter. Fred Provenza, Utah State University.”
Bull #14 dam (age 7 years)
Honey Boo Boo-17
RANCH MANAGEMENT at Lukefahr Ranch reflects the paradigm of ‘Working with Nature’ as illustrated in the following figure. Calves are born mostly in May (see figure below). The green line depicts forage quality whereas the red line represents cow’s nutritional requirements. Working closely with Nature allows cows to gain flesh condition prior to calving from the spring flush of green grass. Especially for heifers, this will ensure high herd fertility or breed-back.
However, this schedule requires that bulls and cows breed in late summer. This is a challenge for cattle producers in south Texas. This challenge is overcome by use of heat tolerant breeds: Senepol and Tuli. Semen evaluation tests in late June and early July have confirmed high fertility levels in bulls (most bulls tested to date have had over 90% live sperm counts in collections of semen that is highly sperm concentrated). Below is a chart that depicts well the tropical-like conditions during a rather typical breeding season (mid-July through August) in 2014. On most days, temperatures were above 100 F and humidity levels were mostly between 90 and 100%, while wind speed tended to be steady over the breeding season in terms of maximum 10 second wind gusts.
In addition, in the summer season most bulls in the region are sub-fertile, even temporarily sterile (especially if they have black-colored hides). In addition, calves are usually weaned in fall (by the fence-line method) after rains cause the next major flush of green grass for the year.However, in recent years calves have been wintered on their dams and weaned in early spring (early March) – about 2 months before calving. Cows then have about a two month window to obtain a minimum BCS of 6 by calving time. The strategy has so far paid off without the need for dietary energy or protein supplements during winter.
In the above photo, a 4 year-old bull (1/2 Senepol, 1/4 Tuli, and 1/4 Red Angus) serviced four cows in the afternoon on 28 July, 2011, when it was 100 degrees F. Notice too the early interest or libido of seven bull calves! Also notice the good cow body condition of the two cows. Although it was a severe drought year, cows were not being supplemented but were consuming only stockpiled forage.
The above model was developed by Steven Lukefahr after nearly 20 years of experience in aligning cattle genetics with natural cycles through drought management. The model displays the focus on drought management and appropriate genetics in working with natural cycles in south Texas. While the model is self-explanatory, it emphasizes that drought management and genetics is critical for production success in the region. The unique model has been described in detail in articles and in presentations delivered by Lukefahr to beef cattle producers at clinics and other educational events. It is highly ironic that the same model is strikingly similar to one reflected by Nature over the millennia involving wildlife species such as bison and deer. To quote Mr. Tom Lasater: ” Nature is smarter than all of us”! To illustrate, the photo below is of my neighbor’s bison herd which is never supplemented or pampered or given dewormers or vaccines. They winter their calves and later wean them in the early spring about 2 months before they calve again, which they typically do annually for some 20 or more years. Calves only weigh between about 40 and 50 pounds at birth. In addition, cows are very protective of their calves.This is the epitome of easy-care livestock. However, one negative is that they are difficult and dangerous to work in pens. The photo was taken by horseback by Steven Lukefahr, prior to being run out of the pasture by the old cow who is the matriarchal leader!
The figure below presents an overview of my basic ranch management program and below this figure is a table that compares traditional to alternative management practices with the latter being adopted at Lukefahr Ranch.
Guard donkeys – Below is a photo of the spring guardian of young calves in the herd. “Jenny” is shown below with her new foal born on March 12, 2010. Allowing a donkey to foal every few years further stimulates strong maternal behaviors. Jenny often stands guard over cows as they calve, serves as babysitter while cows go off to graze, but especially becomes very active in chasing coyotes and dogs out of pastures! Jenny is not treated as a pet but is managed as any cow in the herd. In 2013 and 2014, her daughter, Jezebel, following two years of training by her dam, is now the guardian of a separate cow herd (middle photo). In April 2017 another jenny was purchased as shown in the right photo. “Molly” is the guardian of another cow herd. Here is a link of an article that appeared in The Cattleman magazine: Guard donkeys.