As with most wild and domesticated grazing animals, beef calves are usually born in the spring. Calving is timed to coincide with the emerging spring grass so that the mother cow will have nutritious grass to eat, which helps produce an abundance of milk for her offspring.
Calving is almost always done outside. Producers prefer each of the cows within a herd to calve within a few weeks of one another. This permits the producer to keep a close eye on the cows that are about to give birth, so that if there are any birthing problems the producer or a veterinarian can step in to help. A short calving period also means the calves will reach market weight at approximately the same time, allowing the producer to sell a uniform group of calves.
To keep cows calving within the same timeframe, the producer limits the exposure that the cows have to herd bulls. Bulls are turned out with the cows in early summer and removed from the cow herd a few weeks later. Approximately nine and a half months later, the calves are born.
Cows that do not become pregnant during that year’s breeding season are usually sold for processing. This is what’s called culling the herd. It costs money to feed a cow over the winter and a cow that is not going to produce a calf is not going to make money for the producer.
During calving, the producer typically keeps an eye on the newborn calves and their mothers to ensure the calves are thriving. Occasionally there may be trouble delivering the calf or with the cow mothering the newborn. The producer will take the steps needed to help the calf and cow through this important time.
Once the producer is satisfied that all the calves and cows are healthy, they are left to pasture together. Most of the calf-care is left to the mother cow. There are some interventions that the producer takes to ensure the health and safety of the herd. These include vaccinating the calves against diseases, castrating male calves to prevent fighting when they mature, and dehorning to prevent the cattle from injuring one another with their horns as they grow. In some parts of the country, calves are branded to identify their ownership. All cattle must be ear tagged with a Canadian Cattle Identification Agency approved RFID tag before they leave their herd of origin.
The fall roundup is a tradition on many western ranches. Cows and calves are brought in from their summer pastures and separated. By this time the cows have been rebred and will need all their nutrition to maintain their body condition over the winter and nurture the next year’s calf growing inside them. The current year’s calf will by now be almost as big as its mother, ranging in weight from 272 kilograms (600 lbs.) to 408 kgs (900 lbs.) The calves are ready to eat grass and hay on their own, and it is time for them to be weaned.
At this point, most cow-calf operators sell their year’s calf production to another producer who specializes in backgrounding or finishing cattle. Some of the female calves may be retained in the herd to replace older cows for breeding or may be sold to another producer to add to his cow herd.