WASHINGTON, Jan. 18, 2017 - Researchers in North Dakota have come up with data to show what ranchers have been proving to themselves for years: Calving in May can be easier and less expensive, and thus, more profitable, than calving in March and April, when it’s colder and wetter, especially in the country’s colder latitudes.

Kris Ringwall and colleagues at the Dickinson Research Extension Center decided in 2012 to delay breeding of mature cows and heifers into August, resulting in calves arriving the next May or early June, rather than the traditional mid-March period. The main incentive for the switch was a budget squeeze. A lot more labor is required to provide tolerable conditions for cows delivering in March and to protect calves from illness, frostbite or death.

“The beef industry in North Dakota was built on March/April calving,” says Ringwall, the center’s director, but he says there’s been a shift. “Driving down the roads, you see a lot more smaller calves in June” than in past years. Ranchers see sons and daughters mature and leave home, he says, and families have gotten smaller, prompting them to move to warm weather calving because they can’t meet the labor demands imposed by cold-weather calving.

So the center decided to measure the potential shift in terms of cattle production. Researchers recorded the growth performance of their herd of around 250 calves born in March of 2009, 2010 and 2011, then that of similar calf crops in 2012, 2013 and 2014. All calves from both groups were weaned in late October, so calves from the first three years, averaging 205 days old, were heavier than those from the later years, weaned at 168 days, on average (see results table). However, the younger calves had gained the same 2.5 pounds per day, on average, as the older groups, and weighed the same when their average daily gains were projected to the same 205 days as the older calves.

Changing the season for calving is complicated and requires a rancher to deal with many other adjustments to herd management and nutrition, Ringwall says. After moving the calving season, the center is still experimenting with its change in weaning date because their calves come into fall two months younger than March calves. They were marketed in November in 2012 through 2014, held until January a year ago, and were taken off pasture in December 2016. But, he says, the switch to May calving is permanent at the center. Here’s why.

Besides the threats to newborn calves survival in cold and wet conditions, Ringwall says, “March calving is a whole mindset. You have to be prepared every day,” and monitoring cows and calves goes around the clock, getting cows and newborns out of the frigid wind and wet, muddy sites when possible. “You have to put on long underwear, socks, boots and, mittens and coveralls just to go out and check the cows. It’s just a lot of work.” He notes that, in North Dakota, April is typically cold and wet, and often worse than March for calving. Thus, he says, his first calves arrive May 12.

“When we went to May calving,” on the other hand, “that all disappeared. It did not take us 10 to 15 minutes anymore just to get ready to go outside.  Now we just walk out to check the cows. We get the calves tagged and then we walk away and leave them.” In winter conditions, heifers (delivering their first calves) are often unpredictable, and their calves may need attention immediately. But in May: “Our heifers: They’re out on pasture. They are doing just fine . . . it’s warmer. The crested wheat grass is growing under their feet.”   

Cattle husbandry experts say that delaying calf arrivals into warmer months is just one facet of adopting an overall herd management plan that complements the natural seasonal cycles of animal reproduction and forage production. The tide of cattle owners converting to totally grass-fed (grazing and winter hay) operations typically adopt late calving because it means pastures become productive just as cows’ nutritional needs surge and they get ready to deliver calves and lactate.

Allen Williams, a Mississippi rancher, cattle market analyst and expert on grass-fed production, says, “We are certainly seeing more calves being born in April-June, and that trend is continuing to grow as more producers see the cost benefits and convert to more adaptive grazing practices.” Though good national measurements of that trend are lacking, he does have some numbers on the transition from conventional to grass-fed ranches, a tally he says has mounted from a handful a decade ago to more than 4,000 operations today, enticed partly by food retailers such as Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. ramping up their grass-fed burger sales.

Chip Hines, a Yuma, Colorado, rancher and author of several books on herd management and grazing systems, says it is the high costs of cold-weather calving on both the cows and their calves that has persuaded a lot of ranchers in northern regions to turn away from the American tradition of calving early in order to produce the heaviest calves possible for the October feeder market.

“We can’t push the cow too far out of her natural environment and genetic ability; if we do, it costs us in feed and other problems,” he says. On the other hand, he says, “If we are working with nature and our cows are calving at about the same time that the deer and antelope (bear their young), we get through the winter with lower feed costs, and we let the cow start building herself back up on green grass before she calves.”

Another crucial advantage to late calving, Hines says, is “getting the calf off to a good start.” He says animal scientists have shown that a newborn calf “is still putting on body cells, adding body cells, for 12 days after birth. If he is born in the winter, any snow storm or sickness can set that calf back and he does not build as many cells,” and that difference will limit the calf’s growth, and production of fat cells, later on.

Hines emphasizes, however, that to succeed economically, a rancher has to make his forage production, grazing system, type of cattle, and reproduction schedule all make sense together. Still, he suggests, “For anybody that works on it, the economics are there for later calving.”

However, the trend toward later spring calving has not so far significantly changed the numbers or timing of feeder calves reaching the autumn market, says Derrell Peel, livestock economist at Oklahoma State University. “I can’t really see anything in the data at this point. From year to year, there is just so much variation in conditions and when people move cattle (to market), so . . . even if they have changed (the time for calving), it is very difficult for us to detect it.”

“For example, there are indications that there are more calves that were not marketed this fall . . . held in retained ownership,” which may have been owing to more calves born late this year, so ranchers are keeping them longer. Or, for example, the autumn slump in cattle prices, instead, may be a bigger reason that fewer feeders where marketed, he says. What’s more, on many ranches in more southern locations, including Oklahoma, ranchers have moved calving into the fall, taking advantage of the typically dry, cooler weather after summer heat has passed.


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