By Martha Mintz
It’s oddly quiet at 6:30 a.m. shipping morning at the “V” Ranch in Thermopolis, Wyo. A floodlight casts an orange pool of light from the peak of the silently looming barn. The only hint that a cow/calf herd numbering more than 600 head will be weaned, shipped and processed in short order is a smattering of vacant trailers.
When Jim Wilson steps out in tan chaps buffed to a high shine from hours of saddle wear to greet his camera-toting guests, there is no sign of “shipping fever.” That dreaded seasonal condition where the anxiety of a year’s worth of work and worry has come to a head and the victim is vibrating with nervous energy. Instead, there’s simply the quiet confidence of a man who has a good plan of action and is following it through.
Years spent hammering out a herd health and nutrition program that delivers healthy, quality calves on shipping day lend Wilson that calm. So does the presence of his trusted veterinarian, Dan Miller, who has long worked right beside him developing those herd health protocols.
“You need consistency year after year after year in health programs,” says Miller, who has been consulting with Wilson for more than 14 years through Cloud Peak Veterinary Services, Worland, Wyo. Active veterinarian involvement in whole-herd health protocols helps foster consistency, he says. “If a vet is only getting called out once or twice a year to put out fires, he has no plan or concept of what’s going on at that ranch.”
Miller is a very familiar face at the V Ranch, as evident by his camaraderie with Wilson’s tight-knit shipping crew of family and friends, who happily gobbled up the donuts he supplied. Besides being present for the obvious vet days of pregnancy checking, bull testing, and so on, Miller and Wilson sit down every year to go over herd performance. Weaknesses and strengths are identified and changes are planned as necessary to keep the reputation Salers-Angus composite herd in good health and producing at maximum efficiency.
“As the vet I like to be involved in the whole animal picture,” Miller says.
He takes an active role in advising Wilson on raising and breeding bulls, developing heifers, cow health, calf health, giving advice on when to cull cows, weaning and any other aspect of the operation where health and nutrition come into play. That way, if something goes wrong, he has the whole story to work from, not just a snippet.
A healthy start
Establishing good cow health is where Wilson and Miller focus their attention first.
“Cow health reflects in the calf, and the calf is what the producer is selling,” Miller says. “We have to take care of the cow to take care of the calf so that the cattle will perform for the Wilsons and the buyers, which will keep them coming back to buy the calves year after year.”
That chain starts by ensuring good breed-up, an obviously important factor for Wilson’s bottom line.
“Each cow on this ranch owes me a living. Either she delivers me a coupon every year in the form of a calf or she becomes the coupon as a cull cow,” Wilson says.
That being said, he knows that the cow’s success rests on his own and Miller’s shoulders. Cattle are genetically selected for maternal success, and every aspect of their health is taken care of. The result is a higher than 97 percent conception rate most years.
“We strive for a 100 percent conception rate and a 100 percent calving rate,” Wilson says.
Steps to ensure conception start in the short window between calving and breeding. All cows are given a modified live vaccine that includes protection for IBR, PI3, BVD, Vibrio and Lepto .
“It protects all the little areas that can cause abortion or early embryonic death. It boosts conception rates a lot and some immunity is passed along to the baby calf in colostrum,” Miller says.
Deworming in the fall and at spring turnout also provide a nice boost.
“Parasite control is very important. It boosts conception rates, cow performance and improves the milking rate as well,” Miller says. Wilson adds that keeping a cow clean of lice and other parasites so all her intake goes into production is “the cheapest feed we can get.”
Monitoring minerals has also paid in higher conception rates. Despite living in the shadow of Copper Mountain, Wilson and Miller were able to pin calf losses in first-calf heifers on copper deficiencies.
“We were able to change the mineral program around a little bit and now the heifers are back on track and doing great,” Miller says.
Heifers also get a scours vaccine at pregnancy testing and a booster shot at 2 to 3 weeks prior to calving to raise antibody levels and deliver protection to the calf through colostrum.
Timing and immunity
Just getting the right vaccines given to the calves isn’t good enough for Miller and Wilson. They’re very particular on the timing and method of vaccination.
A tight calving window thanks to a roughly 45-day breeding season helps ensure that calves are about the same age when it’s time to brand and administer vaccination. All calves are processed using a hydraulic calf table, making it a job for a small, responsible, BQA-trained crew. Calves are given a 4-way viral including IBR, PI3, BVD and BRSV along with a 7-way clostridial with haemophilus.
“The older the calf is, the more mature its immune system is and the better it will respond to the vaccine,” Miller says. “But there is also a window where we don’t want the calf coming down with something before they are immunized, so it’s a Catch-22. I like the calves to at least be 40 days old at branding.”
That strong immunity base is boosted strategically prior to weaning.
“The timeframe for boosting the shots we gave at branding prior to shipping is very important,” Wilson says. “We try to do it 2 to 3 weeks prior to shipment, and I’ve been really particular on the exact dates because we’ve been so successful. I look at the previous year and try to get within a day of that.”
Calves will reach their peak immunity at around 20 days after vaccination, he says.
“We time it so they hit peak immunity about 3 to 4 days after they’ve been shipped and unloaded at the backgrounding lots in Kansas,” Wilson says.
This strategy helps ensure health at shipping and performance upon arrival.
“Jim doesn’t want to ship any sick calves,” Miller says. “He wants them to show up with good immunity at the feedlot. The health of those cattle reflects a lot on Jim and on me as well. We like to keep everyone happy by delivering healthy calves.”
Health certainly got tested at shipping 2012. Pastures parched by extended drought exposed powdery dirt that was quickly churned into billowing clouds of clingy sediment at gather. But as the riders brought the dust-covered herd into wetted-down corrals, there was no coughing or wheezing, no dropped ears and only the occasional dripping nose.
“With these dry years with lots of dust we have had a Pasteurella problem in this area. But with the modified live virus vaccination program, the Wilsons are doing well and they haven’t had those problems despite the conditions,” Miller says.
Healthy calves at shipping translate to healthy calves in the feedyard. Wilson’s close relationship with his buyers, Knight Feedlot, Lyons, Kan., means he hears firsthand how the calves perform, and it had better be a good report.
“The calves we’ve shipped to Knights in the past have made it through with 0.6 percent death loss, so that’s pretty good performance,” Wilson says. “I want the Knights to make money or they won’t be back buying my calves again. I think our program has worked well.”
That’s good news for Miller, too.
“When our client makes money, we make money. If our client doesn’t make money, we suffer as well. We want everybody, including the buyer of these calves. to be successful because that puts more money back into the program. It’s a trickle-down effect,” Miller says.
And if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it, he adds.
“It’s important with herd health programs to stay consistent year after year after year,” he says. “If you’re changing products and changing brands all the time, how will you know what was consistent? Stay with one product for a while so you can see what’s working and what isn’t.”
Consistency, careful timing and solid results have created an environment that allows both Wilson and Miller to remain relatively relaxed and jovial on such an important day. They know they’ve put in the work and just have to sit back and reap the benefits—at least until the calves are on the truck. Then, it’s back to work pregnancy checking the cows and setting the ball rolling on another successful year.