When we make the decision to buy or raise a pen of practice cattle we are looking at a pretty steep investment. Not only are we talking the initial cost of the cattle, but the fencing maintenance, feed, and general upkeep on 15 to 20 plus steers isn’t cheap by any means. With that being said, we want to make sure we can get the most out of our investment by keeping our cattle honest working great. Here are a few things you can do to get longevity out of your practice cattle.
- Keep the stress as low as possible. When you are setting up your catch pens, alleyways and chute take the time to set them up thoughtfully, not haphazardly. Look at other facilities, what works, what doesn’t? Be sure to set all the alleys up with as few corners as possible so cattle can follow the natural curves rather than bunching up in a corner. Always take the time to train your cattle properly through your facilities. If the first few trips through are low stress, they will continue to be low stress. Cattle prefer consistency to change, so once you have your routine set, keep it that way. It is also important, especially in the heat, to take breaks to allow the cattle to catch their breath and get a drink. We step off and get on a fresh horse periodically, so we need to give our cattle that same break. Remember that we aren’t at the Thomas and Mack needing to stretch one out in 3 seconds, so be gentle on your cattle. Score your practice cattle out, avoid dallying hard as much as possible, and don’t turn a steer with a bad head catch. Being easy on your cattle will keep them from getting bad habits and making your practice less productive.
- Take biosecurity precautions just as you would with any cattle herd. In some parts of the US it may be hard to buy your entire pen from one source. In that case, it’s important to keep your new cattle separate from your existing cattle for a minimum of two weeks, with 30 days being preferred. The separation will give time for any underlying sickness to show up in your new cattle before they have the opportunity to infect the rest of your herd. The separation might be inconvenient, but in the long run it is much easier to treat 5 calves for shipping fever versus your entire herd. Biosecurity measures need to continue to be taken once your whole herd is established. Take the time to look over your cattle for any kind of sickness on a daily basis. Save yourself the headache and doctor at the first signs of illness rather than waiting for the symptoms to progress. Once they are healthy they can go back with the group and get back to roping.
- Use your horn wraps for every run. I know it is tempting to run one pen through without wraps when you’re pressed for time. One run can’t hurt right? Wrong! That one run without a horn wrap on can lead to head tricks, ducking, and any other number of bad habits that make them a less than ideal practice steer. If you know you are going to be pressed for time, consider leaving the wraps on overnight. As long as the steers aren’t out on pasture and the temperatures aren’t too extreme, it won’t hurt them to wear them for a night. On the same token – never leave horn wraps on for an extended period of time. Chaffing and any kind of bur or dirt under the wrap can cause a significant amount of irritation if left for an extended period of time. If you do notice a steer has a spot that’s irritated treat with a simple antibiotic ointment while they are in the chute or alleyway.
- Consider keeping your cattle in a rotation. If you are roping your cattle multiple days of the week, it can be beneficial to giving a small group the day off. Say you have a group of 15 steers and you are roping about 5 times a week. Each time you rope pick out a different group of 3 to have the day off. Just by roping 12 steers instead of 15 you are giving all the cattle an extra day a week off. Those days off can significantly increase the longevity of your whole herd. The added bonus of this practice is that you are going to be paying more attention to each cow as you sort them off. You’ll be able to notice if one of them is looking a little less thrifty than the others versus if you are strictly running the group through together.
- Keep them healthy. That may seem obvious, but seeing as that we aren’t necessarily buying these cattle for a profit some people may consider taking the cheapest route in caring for their calves and steers. It is just as important to keep up with vaccinations, deworming, good nutrition and mineral programs with your roping herd as it is with a cow/calf or feeder operation. Healthy cattle will not only stay honest longer, but you will also see a return when the time comes to sell or turn out to breed. Slick, fat cattle sell better than ribby and coarse-coated whether you are selling polled or horned. I also know if I’m looking for replacement heifers for my herd I would much rather pay a little more for a heifer that looks like she’s had good care versus marginal care. If you keep your own heifers back to breed you’ll see earlier cycling and better calves out of heifers that had proper care in the early parts of their lives.
As cowboys and cowgirls it is always our top priority to take great care of all our stock. It is a source of pride to have a great string of horses and a good looking set of roping cattle. Following these simple tips will keep your herd not only looking great but working great for months allowing you to get the most out of your investment.