WASHINGTON, May 25, 2016 - Aligning calving season more with Mother Nature than to usual seasonal market price trends is gaining popularity among cattle management experts and cattlemen.
Ranchers may be looking for new ways to protect their bottom lines, now especially, since recent years’ fattened cattle prices of $150-$160 a hundredweight are kaput, and a $120-$130 price is more likely for a few years. Moving calving season from winter or early spring into late spring can slash a ranch’s costs on several fronts. So, with the cattle gestation calendar calling for bulls to join cow herds in the next few weeks to produce March 2017 calves, a look at later dates may be timely and economically rewarding.
“I would say that moving the calving date later, in itself, does have benefits that would improve the bottom line,” says Jim Gerrish, an Idaho cattle rancher and coach who holds seminars nationally on grazing and cattle management.
Nonetheless, a ton of tradition in American ranching would preclude a stampede toward delayed calving dates. For decades, most commercial cow-calf operators have scheduled calving for February or March, ensuring time to produce the biggest calves they can for the fall feeders market. “That idea of having early calves so you have bigger calves to sell in October is still the predominant view in the cattle producing community,” Gerrish says. Then again, he says, “just about every business analysis that’s been done shows clearly that weaning weight has little influence on the profitability of a ranch.” He says that feed costs, depreciation (of cows, facilities and equipment), and labor efficiency all are bigger profitability determinants.
About eight years ago, Dick Knopp, a rancher since the 1970s near Golva, North Dakota, applied a two-month delay: from February to mid-April, except for heifers calving in late March. He is pleased with the results. “It got to the point we were losing too many calves” and others were losing tips of ears and tails to the winter temps, which spells sharp discounts in the feeder market. His later calving saves a lot of springtime hay and supplement feeding because mothers can start grazing when they have April calves and need plentiful feed for lactating. Plus, he says, April calving is a lot less hectic for him.
What’s more, Knopp doesn’t think he’s at a disadvantage bringing younger, 400-pound feeders to market in the fall, rather than the bigger ones he used to sell. “Total dollars per head are what the buyers are looking at,” he says. Lighter feeders are typically fetching more dollars per pound than heavier calves, and he has found he gets just as many dollars per calf for his lighter calves than the heavier ones bring.
Chip Hines, a Colorado rancher and author of cattle and grazing management books, says ditto to that. “If you spend some time in a sales barn, you can see the smaller calves are making as much or more per pound than the bigger calves.” So he says, “It just doesn’t pay to shoot for a big calf.” Hines sees conversion to later calving catching on in his own region. “People are finally figuring out that the death loss and sickness in (winter) calving isn’t worth it,” he says.
Brett Chedzoy, a Cornell Cooperative Extension resource educator who runs his own cattle operation in Schuyler County, New York, finds his rotational grazing fits in smoothly with his late calving season. “On our farm we start calving on about May 1, which coincides with when our grazing season starts.” He has no barns, so the cows all deliver calves in the pasture. Yet he says he loses very few calves.
“We’re a 100 percent grass-fed operation. So our goal is to have an animal that’s born in May and yet makes nice steaks 18 to 20 months later, after coming off pasture in December.” He markets in December “before we have to take the calf through a second winter, because taking it through a few months of winter is more expensive than grazing it the whole rest of the year.” Calving in May “when the cows are out on in a fresh, clean nutritional environment” means cows don’t need much help, saving him a lot of labor, he says.
Note, too, a growing contingent of ranchers who’ve moved calving all the way to early fall. Typical is a group of 155 producers belonging to the Wisconsin Grass Fed Beef Cooperative. Most schedule calves for April into June. But Rod Ofte, co-op manager, says Wisconsin springs are so often very cold and wet, “and it’s the wetness that kills calves.” So about a fourth of co-op members, “myself included, are really in love with fall calving.” His calves arrive in September. “You’ve got cool nights but nice days,” his rotational grazing provides forage through November, he says, “and the calves come through the first winter on mother’s milk. They do very well, hitting spring grass at about 500 pounds.”
Derrell Peel, livestock economist at Oklahoma State University, says he’s come to appreciate the advantages of fall calving that Ofte touts, though “there is no one right answer to ‘calving dates’.” Whether a rancher shifts calving later into spring or into fall, “the real advantage comes down to managing on the cost side,” including efficient and optimal use of pasture forage and “how you manage those cows on a year-round basis” to keep them in good reproductive health, he says.
At the same time, late spring calving isn’t going to work for everybody. Most commercial dairy farms, for example, have to maintain a certain level of milk production year round. And
Dan Maher, who has run an Angus breed stock ranch near Morristown, South Dakota, since the 1970s, says he would like his cows delivering in warmer weather, too. But like most ranchers producing registered beef breed bulls, his calves this year arrived in winter so they will reach 15 months of age and be ready as sires for herds they’ll join in 2017. The extra feed costs and a lot of winter work outside to keep young calves sheltered and healthy are just a part of competing in his breeding stock sector, he says.
Meanwhile, Gerrish suggests this for anyone adjusting calving dates and wanting next spring’s moms to have plenty of grass waiting: Rest plenty of pasture from September through winter to accommodate further growth and ground cover.
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