The environment, more than grass alone, shaped the calf to successfully live, produce, and reproduce. It is as important in making a successful cow, as the family environment is in making a successful youngster.

Adaptation is a critical factor that too many overlook when purchasing, managing or moving cattle. It is important to consider the trauma and shock that takes place in the life of an animal that is removed from the pastures in which he or she was conceived and born to. Beyond that, the calf is nourished from mother’s milk based on those same grasses.

Consider several points:

  1. Grasses are vital in determining the protein type that creates the genetic profile of the egg (germ Plasma) that is fertilized by the sperm cell and then develops into an embryo, then a fetus, then a fully developed calf. The result of that 282-day closed environment is an animal that is totally adapted to the grasses his mother consumed.

    Even though the calf does not eat grass at birth, within a few days it begins nibbling in imitation of its mother. Within several weeks, the rumination process begins. Meanwhile the calf is consuming milk produced from these same grasses. In sum, it is the proteins, sugars, fibers and nutrition in the grass that provides the building blocks to develop the genetic makeup of the egg, sustains it in the womb, and provides the environment for growth. If the calf has structural soundness it will develop properly and quickly in that same pasture and environment because it is adapted to it from conception.

    If the mother is moved to 2, 3 or 4 different pastures within a farm the new calf will be adapted to each and perform well in all. It is also very important for the developing calf to grow up with herd mates where bonding, pecking orders and relationships are formed which provide a stress-free, tranquil environment.

  2. Now if that mother is moved from the conception pastures during her pregnancy to another environment, she will probably do alright if she has the proper body and gland structure. But when her calf is born in this new environment, the milk she produces is not in synch with the calf’s genetic profile imprinted at conception. The calf’s system does not have the proper enzymatic activity to ruminate and process the nutrition from the new grasses and development is stunted. At that point we’re apt to conclude that the match of cow and sire did not work and not realize the problem is adaptation.

    Go another step. If the calf is weaned and moved to another environment the same dysfunction happens a second time. It is not only confronted with unfamiliar grass; in most cases it is also separated from the herd mates it was comfortable with. It does not know where to go for water and the taste and mineralization may not be the same. The result is the calf does not herd up with the other animals but lays outside the main herd, often out of sight. That process of herding takes at least a month.

    If you move a group of steers to another environment for grass finishing there is a comfortable familiarity among the animals. However, in my experience, the animals may grow a frame but not get the nutrition to put on the fat necessary. There are a few farms I work with that have very highly mineralized soils with high sugar content (10-12 brix-sugar) in the grass and animals moved onto those pastures normally do well and finish on time.

    Calves conceived on highly-mineralized soils and then moved to soils of lesser fertility are traumatized; their growth slows and sickness often occurs. Moving cattle from a high elevation to a lower elevation is very hard on the animals because of the decreased mineral levels.

    Here a personal confession is in order. We moved 12 Devon cows from New Zealand thousands of miles to the northeastern United States. The cows managed the transition fairly well thanks to their conformation and an aggressive mineral program; however, the calves almost starved to death despite consuming all the milk they could drink. Nine of the 12 calves were born backward, three were dead and the nine we saved were weak and lethargic. The heifers from those cows are into their second calf and are producing quite well now. But while genetically they’re alright, phenotypically the females calves are a wreck. We did not sell their brothers as breeding sires. Fortunately, the original 12 cows now seem to have completed adaptation and their third calves are the best yet.

  3. Adaptation from one environment to another then probably takes at least three years (third calf produced from eggs of that environment) before females begin giving you their full genetic potential. I am seeing a marked improvement in the structure of the calves from the same cows and sires that were used for the earlier generations. Genetically I believe the first two sets of animals may be okay, but the third generation is dramatically better.

    Grown cattle also have to adapt to more than unfamiliar grass. Cattle that are moved from one herd to another are considered outcast by the new community of cows; every cow in the herd challenges the new comer and chases her away. It takes months for her to find her place in the herding structure, even if she eventually becomes the matriarch. That adaptation process is no different than humans being upset by death or separation. All this should be considered when purchasing livestock. Moving a few from the same herd certainly will work better than transferring just one.

  4. For the past 50 years we have been moving the cattle we fatten for the table to many different locations: from pasture to pasture, then to wheat and finally to feed lots where the rations are built of high energy supplements. But just as we were forced into that impractical and unwholesome practice, we must now recognize the likelihood that this system cannot last much longer. Larger economic trends are going to force a change, and like our cows we are going to be forced to adapt.

As producers, are we going to allow the industry to dictate what comes next? Or are we going to take control of our own production? An increasing number of farmers and ranchers are fast changing to grass genetics as their answer to those questions. They are finishing their beef on grass and producing milk on grass.

It is the obvious next generation of cattle production. But there are powerful economic forces aligned against it.