Calf chest size may affect calving
February 17, 2014
While he is quick to point out that the idea didn't originate with him, Ryan Honeyman is excited to discuss a calving-ease concept he has studied in his cowherd for years.
For fifteen years the Reeder, N.D., Charolais breeder has measured the chest circumference of his calves at birth, believing that measurement is one tool producers may be able to use to predict calving ease.
"Ron Bowman was doing it long before I was," Honeyman explains, of the former seedstock producer who raised the first Charolais heifers Honeyman ever bought.
"When we are marketing bulls it is a selling point," Honeyman said. Ryan and wife Rhonda recommend to their bull buyers that they should feel comfortable buying a bull with a 26.5 in chest measurement to use on heifers. "Some guys think they can go up to 27 inches on heifers," Honeyman said, but he plays it safe with his smaller recommendation.
Ryan and Rhonda consider conformation and birth weight too when making suggestions to potential customers regarding heifer bulls and often the three traits are inter-related. "You hardly ever find one that measures 26.5 that weighs over 90 pounds," he explains. He looks closely at the shape of the calf too, particularly the smoothness of his shoulders.
"It has taken many, many years to get people to buy into my philosophy that a one hundred pound bull can be an easy calver," Honeyman said.
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In general and particularly in his herd, Charolais cattle are not the same cattle that they were 20 years ago, Honeyman said. "The bull calves are long bodied with a lot of leg when they are born so they are naturally going to have bigger birthweights than some other breeds, but that doesn't have to mean you will have calving trouble with them," he said. "If you have body length you will have weight," he explains adding, "I like length."
Honeyman said that while some bull buyers have been slow to adopt his philosophy, and some still pay no attention to it, others appreciate his effort to provide extra information.
Customer Ryan Bruski has paid attention to the chest measurement concept. The Ekalaka, Mont., rancher who operates with his father Joe Bruski, shared some details about his breeding program. "We have been using Honeyman bulls on our Red and Black Angus heifers since 2010 and have had nothing but good luck since. We used to buy light birth weight red and black Angus bulls to use on our heifers but we could never get enough performance out of the calves. We now pull little to none of our heifers and still get the same performance as our cows. Last spring we calved out 110 head of 900 lb heifers and only assisted four head. After we decide the bulls are too large for our heifers we use them on our young and old cows without losing any performance. We are big believers in the chest circumference and feel that any bull with a 27 in chest with smooth shoulders and good length is suitable for heifers."
As far as his herd goes, Honeyman said that calving ease and milk have improved tremendously since his first bull sale 25 years ago.
"You still get some bigger birthweight calves but the build of the cattle is so much better than thirty years ago. They are smoother structured, smoother muscled," he said, adding that those are traits he has paid close attention to. Honeyman explained that when he started raising bulls, one goal was to produce easy-calving Charolais bulls in a world that, at the time, wasn't prioritizing calving ease. The breed has now "gotten to a more moderate sized animal," he said.
"We work on calving ease pretty hard but if you are going to have performance there has to be a balance there," he said, adding that most commercial cattlemen shy away from the extreme high end birthweight bulls. Maintaining and studying chest measurements and focusing on genetics to moderate frame and produce smooth-patterned cattle has allowed Honeymans to sell some bulls with higher birthweights, though, without compromising calving ease. Without the chest measurement data, ranchers might worry about using some of the bulls, but many of Honeyman's customers are comfortable relying on his chest measurements and overall assessment. Honeyman sometimes uses a home-raised bull that was born at 100 lbs or a little higher. The home–raised herd sire in his catalog this year is just a hair over that benchmark. Honeyman said he would have no worries using him on heifers.
Honeyman explained that he has had some "growing pains" when it comes to the actual measuring process on the calves, which he does when he weighs them, shortly after they are born. He started out using a cloth measuring but he now uses a metal tape measure and pulls it tightly around the calf's chest. He believes this is the most accurate and consistent method of measuring.
Ryan and Rhonda Honeyman decided at a young age they wanted to raise cattle on their southwestern North Dakota operation. "Back then things were tough and I've always liked cattle," he said. So they bought some cows from the neighbor and started using Charolais bulls. After a couple of years they had the opportunity to buy some of Ron Bowman's heifers and they jumped in. Selling registered Charolais bulls wasn't something he "pursued" but rather something that just kind of happened.
About twelve years later Honeymans went back and registered the females after deciding that they would sell some bulls. They even ended up registering some cows that were not around anymore in order to get papers for their daughters and sons. "In the end I think we got about ninety percent of them registered," he recalls. He has sold grade bulls at times but the last one went through the ring over five years ago.
Honeyman said his cows and heifers are all bull-bred and he sells mostly yearling bulls. He bucket-feeds a bull developer along with free choice long stem hay and said he gets very few complaints about his bulls' feet. "Bucket feeding will help keep them mild-mannered for the rest of their lives," he said. "You can't make a wild animal gentle, it has to be bred in, and we get a lot of comments about their good dispositions." Honeyman said one of his favorite aspects of raising and selling bulls is the spring delivery period when he gets to meet his customers on their home turf and learn about their individual operations. Honeyman Charolais 25th annual bull sale will be on Feb. 14 at Bowman Auction Market, Bowman, N.D.