Innovation is imperative for women acting as primary operators on their farms. With brute force not always a viable production option, the result is a gentler method for both livestock and the land.
During the No-Till on the Plains annual Winter Conference Palmer, Kansas farmer Lucinda Stuenkel shared her journey to refine her farm operations after tragedy struck her family.
Before Thanksgiving and after harvest, Stuenkel’s husband and his brother, who farmed in a partnership together, were killed simultaneously in an icy car accident. With no other heirs, all of the farming operations fell to Stuenkel, her two sons — one in kindergarten and one in fourth grade at the time.
“The first two weeks were kind of a blur, so it’s difficult for me to remember all that happened but our friends and neighbors were absolutely wonderful,” Stuenkel said. “I knew that we had 60 cows ready to calve Jan. 1 and only a few weeks for me to prepare for calving alone.”
With a lot less muscle for farm work, she knew changes had to be made to infrastructure and cattle systems for operations to run smoothly without herself, her children or any cattle coming to harm.
In the weeks following her husband’s passing, Stuenkel hurried to prepare for what she knew was a typically brutal January calving season. In a stroke of good karma, a neighboring contractor, whose farm had been farmed by Stuenkel’s relatives after a death in his own family, came through to build a maternity barn in just a few weeks.
The maternity barn is 24 foot by 48 foot, with two maternity pens with head gates, two box stalls, a central sorting area and hay storage loft. The barn has become central not only to Stuenkel’s calving operations but also to basic herd health and record-keeping functions.
“We always keep a lot of metal between us and them when we’re working with these cows so they are not hurting us and we are not hurting them,” Stuenkel said. “We usually use the maternity barn stalls instead of a regular chute for vaccinations because it’s easy to access the neck area from the Dutch gate in our stalls.”
The stalls allow Stuenkel to use a natural flow to catch cows during calving, using hay as the incentive in front of self-catching head gate. She leaves the barn for a few minutes after penning the animal to allow the cow to catch herself on her own.
Also included in each stall is a block-and-tackle system to make ear tagging and taking calf weights just a bit easier.
“When we would weigh calves, the guys used to just put the calf in the sling, attach the sling to the scale and lift the scale up,” Stuenkel said. “That’s great if you’re 6-foot-4 and solid muscle but that’s not what I am so a pulley system really helps me out.”
On a typical operation, a lot of these functions would be performed directly in the pasture. Utilizing a maternity barn has made the normal pre- and post-birth operations a bit more comfortable for the cattle and the handlers, as well as decreasing calf death in freezing temperatures.
In addition to the improvements made by adding the maternity barn, Stuenkel added water sources in pastures, roped off riparian areas, reseeded her dry lot and converted some of the smaller acreage cropland in cover-crop grazing opportunities with the help of some future planning left in place by her late husband.
“We fenced all of the perimeters of our crop ground,” Stuenkel said. “The guys had already contracted with a professional fence builder to do two miles of fence every year for five years before they passed away.”
Calving Season Adjustments
Despite the addition of a better calving facility, Stuenkel questioned the validity of continuing January calving for her operation. After leasing out a majority of her crop ground to sharecroppers, she felt there was time to push calving back to a warmer season.
“Typically, producers calve when it’s beastly cold and the cows muscles won’t stretch enough for the calf to pop out easily because we’re going to start farming in April and want to be sure we’re done calving,” Stuenkel said. “We moved our calving date to April and May instead, and it’s been very similar to fall calving where they are able to easily calve in the pasture on their own.”
The change made it easier for her fall-calving and spring-calving herds to utilize the same breeding bulls since Stuenkel’s fall herd calves September through October. The move also dramatically decreased instances of freezing calves, respiratory issues and predator attacks.
The second most impactful change to Stuenkel’s calving season was implementing sunset-to-sunrise hay feeding practices.
“Our personal best is having 96 percent of the cows calve during daylight hours using the feeding hay sunset to sunrise method,” Stuenkel said.
Twelve hours after cattle begin eating roughage is when they will calve because, when they are digesting the hormones to start the laboring process can’t be released, she said. Cows can either be digesting or calving but not both at the same time. In order to time the hay feeding, Stuenkel set up bale feeders in the dry lot and then let cows in at dusk and let them out at dawn.
“I broadcast crabgrass in my drylot so it doesn’t look like a typical drylot,” Stuenkel said. “Cows love it and every crabgrass plant sets down a 3-foot wide, 3-foot deep bunch of roots that make it hard to trample or kill.”
Without the labor force to make hay feeding a profitable endeavor, Stuenkel turned to updated grazing practices in lieu of traditional supplementation methods.
“There were some of our fields that were very hard to get to with a combine,” Stuenkel said. “I decided to use some of those fields to raise one cover crop after another for grazing and to improve the soil health.”
She set aside 72 acres, made up of seven small acreage tracts, and seeded each tract in cover crop mixes.
“March 1 we plant oats, winter peas, kale and graze it, then take the cattle to a different paddock with the same mix to allow it to recover, then return and graze it again,” Stuenkel said. “We do this cycle two or three times and if it gets ahead of us, we either bring in stockers or we hay it.”
Hay with oats looks like straw but cattle show a strong preference for it, particularly with the winter pea mix, Stuenkel said. They graze the mix mid-April through mid-May, that approach gives their native prairie time to grow. Stuenkel also utilizes some cover crops on ground that is concurrently used for cash crops.
“Before wheat, our goals are to reduce erosion and add nutrients for the wheat,” Stuenkel said, “so we frost seed clover and radishes and allow the snow to take it into the ground or we fly it on.”
Clover is flown on at 5 to 10 pounds per acre and radishes at 0.5 to 1 pound per acre to set up diversity, add some natural fertilizer and provide a yield bump for the wheat crop. The wheat crop is combined off the top of the cover crop, leaving behind a grazing opportunity for the cattle.
In her designated cover crop fields, Stuenkel seeds a second mix for grazing August through September — a mix of sorghum-sudangrass with cow peas and mung beans.
“We introduce them slowly to the richer food in small amounts so we don’t have problems with their digestive systems adjusting to it,” Stuenkel said.
In late summer, she returns to the same field with a third mix of oats, turnips radishes and winter peas to carry their grazing through the fall and winter months.
Stuenkel said the changes to her operation have allowed her to produce quality crops and cattle with greater efficiency, less harm to the environment and less personal injury than her previous methods. She works each day to increase her good results and find new avenues for her farm’s success.