Beef Production: The Basics
Beef Herd Management
Cattle can be run as a group in one herd or they can be grouped in different herds, based on age, sex, size (live mass) and even colour. Reasons for grouping include:
- Breeding management. Where seasonal breeding is applied, the first requirement is the need to separate bulls from the cow herds outside the breeding season and to remove young bulls from herds before they can impregnate cows or heifers that are still considered too young for mating. Where sire identification is wanted, unless DNA fingerprinting is practised, the only way is to run single sire herds.
- Feeding groups of cattle when the group is uniform as to size, age and sex allows the formulation of rations more suitable to the requirements of most animals in the group and reduces competition for food and water. Nutrition plays a role when the separation of mature cows and pregnant heifers is considered because their nutritional requirements are different and, when grazing is limiting, heifers suffer when not run as a separate group.
- When cattle must be handled, it is very detrimental to their performance when they spend too much time away from grazing. Efficient management is possible when cattle are grouped. For example, when yearlings must be vaccinated and are in a separate herd, they can be brought in, vaccinated and returned to graze without prior sorting. If handling facilities cannot handle large herds, it is necessary to make adaptations. In such cases, smaller herds could be advisable or a holding paddock at the handling facility provided where a herd can be kept and passed through the handling facility piecemeal.
- Large herds are at times needed to graze down the grass. When fencing and paddocks are limiting, farmers have no choice but to reduce the number of different herds on their farms.
- Heifers that are too young for breeding must be kept away from intact bulls.
With a full knowledge of how many paddocks of what carrying capacity are available, and a list of the cattle that are kept, effective grouping of cattle into different herds can be undertaken.
Except in communal farming areas, cows are usually run in separate grazing herds. At the start of the breeding season, the cow herds are joined by the bulls selected for breeding. Where enough paddocks are available and single sire mating is wanted, each bull is allocated a number of cows. In multi-sire herds all the cows are kept in a single herd and the appropriate number of bulls added to the herd. Experience has shown that during the breeding season, cow herds greater than 150 cows make handling difficult, although herds of up to 250 cows can be efficiently managed outside the breeding season. Often first calvers are run with the cow herds, although it is better for them to be kept in separate herds. Heifers brought to the bull for the first time must be bred separately.
Towards the end of the breeding season in multi-sire herds it is advisable to decrease the number of bulls in herds to reduce fighting.
At the end of summer, when calves are weaned, the calves are usually separated into heifer and bull herds and these weaners are run as separate herds. Oxen can remain in the same herds as heifers, although it is better to separate them. In weaner production systems, the weaners are sold soon after or at weaning and only replacement heifers remain on the farm. If possible, weaners, yearling heifers and two-year old heifers should be run in separate herds. If they must be mixed, it is better to keep two-year old heifers and yearling heifers together rather than weaners and yearling heifers. Older oxen can be run in one herd, but should be separated if growth must be maximised.
Outside the breeding season bulls are a problem. Bulls kept in all-male groups tend to fight, leading to injury and causing damage to fences and handling facilities. Although some farmers keep bulls in individual pens, this is very expensive and not advisable. It is better to run bulls in small groups where individuals are familiar with one another. Keeping some old, pregnant cows with bulls assists with retaining bull libido. Bulls run together outside the breeding season and used together during the breeding season, tend to establish a pecking order which reduces fighting.
Ultimately, cattle are individuals and farmers must monitor them in association with the veld to establish optimal herd groupings. Trial and error often provides unexpected solutions.