Dale Hicks was tired of pulling calves in blizzards, getting stomped by cows, hauling calf sleds in the mud in the middle of the night and losing sleep.
“When you’re calving in the corral in February or March and the cows are in close quarters, all within 20 feet of each other, all skitzy and protective, man, that’s dangerous,” Hicks said.
Crunch time came five years ago for the herd on his farm near Outlook, Sask.: either the 65 cows learned to take care of themselves and their calves or they would all be shipped.
“You can get really beat up by a cow,” he said.
“ My brother got dinged up pretty bad. He was all bruised and black and blue and hobbling around pretty hard here for a while.
“And that’s what really brought us around to thinking, ‘what are we doing here anyway. This ain’t worth dying over. Each day we get a little older and it’s a little harder for bones to heal.’
“Plus, our grain farm was growing in size and we were getting into the seed business. But the damned cows were taking up all our life. We decided that if we’re going to keep those cows, they’d have to learn to be more independent.”
Hicks decided to give the cows one more chance by switching them to a warm-weather spring-calving regime. He timed breeding so all the calves dropped on green growing grass, starting in mid-April. He had previously timed the bulls so calving occurred in February and March.
“But that was back when we were still dragging calves around over the snow banks in February and wading through big pools of piss and poop at the end of March and getting beat up by nasty moms who didn’t want you touching her newborn,” he said.
“We decided to use 100 acres of native prairie pastureland just a quarter mile out the back door here. It’s really hilly. You can slide right down the hills, so it’s way too steep to cultivate.
“The native pasture isn’t really green yet by mid-April, but we have a couple 30-acre contingent paddocks with meadow brome grass and crested wheat grass, and that stuff greens up early. But actually, if we’ve got any stockpiled native prairie with lots of old dead brown grass, they’d rather go out on that instead of tame pasture.”
Hicks said he has noticed an oddity about calving on hilly native prairie that some other ranchers have commented on over the years. Contrary to what a person might assume, the mothers take their newborn calves around to the north sides of the hills where they nestle down into the brush, even though the warm spring sun is on the south slope.
Researchers in North Dakota have speculated that the predominant spring wind is from the south and it’s often very cold at night. The buck brush provides newborn calves with shelter from those frigid winds.
The bulls go out into the cow herd the first week of July and they stay out with the cows until September.
He said the native prairie where they spend the summer gets pretty ugly by the end of August, so they all come back closer to the yard to graze on hay re-growth, tame pasture and cover crops on cultivated land.
“So now they’ve got 100 acres of green growing grass for calving and they’re happy. The calving goes much easier,” he said.
“Our calf puller is hanging in the shed somewhere. We don’t use it anymore. If we drive around on the quad to check them, there’s plenty of room, so they don’t mind it.
“In five years, we’ve had one loss to coyotes. And we had one premature calf this year. When we used to have losses in the old system, it was calves dropping in a mud puddle. Or you get a blizzard in the middle of March and then find them dead when the snow melts. We don’t have that anymore.”
Hicks said his herd is a mixed bunch of colours, which might have something to do with the hardiness of the calves.
He buys proven breeding cows when selecting replacements and never buys young heifers because he doesn’t like babysitting.
“We’re not cowboys here. We don’t have cowboy boots or big belt buckles or big hats,” he said.
“ We’re just Norwegian farmers trying to raise some beef.”