Cost-of-production estimates fix labor cost as 10-17% of the annual cow cost in the cow-calf enterprise. Some operations calculate labor as return to labor and/or management. As a result, time spent for labor isn't actually an expense item. In other cases, an annual family living expense or “draw” is assumed and only hired labor expense is calculated.
No matter how you calculate it, however, labor is a large expense area and every effort must be made to utilize it efficiently.
Typically, estimates of labor requirements/cow/year range from 6-10 hours/cow/year. Assuming that a well-managed cow herd of 400 cows provides full employment and a living for a single family, this would calculate to an average of 6.6-10.9 hours/day expended for the herd, or 46-77 hours/week. These figures assume that all ranch or farm operations relating to the cow herd (including producing and harvesting feeds, fence and corral repair, etc.,) were included.
It's noteworthy that a few herds in the Nebraska Sandhills assign one person, doing everything but harvest feed, to care for 800 cows. That's 3.6 hours/cow/year if that person devotes 56 hours/week to the herd.
Calving time requires the most intense use of labor in managing a cow herd. Those labor requirements, however, vary according to time of year, severity of conditions, geographic region and available facilities.
In much of the northern U.S., for example, many calves are born from late January to early April, a time when weather can add considerable labor to caring for newborn calves. At times, it almost requires 24-hour attention, which means at least two people devoted to calving. In a bad blizzard event, even more labor may be required. Such labor requirements can be partially offset by facilities but this may not always be cost-effective.
Assuming it requires at least two people, each working at calving 10 hours/day to calve 400 mature cows for 60 days at a rate of $10/hour, the labor cost per cow would be $30. Obviously, altering time spent calving, the number of cows or rates per hour would change the labor calving cost.
Many producers have changed, or considered changing, calving time to help cut labor cost. Other factors such as matching the resources to cow requirements or trying to take advantage of seasonal markets are probably larger factors to consider in changing calving time. But some labor savings can be achieved by calving in a low-challenging calving environment.
One producer told me he and his family didn't want to continue carrying chilled calves to the barn all night. Quality of life was an important consideration in determining time of calving for this family.
Controlled research data to accurately measure labor requirements for various calving seasons is limited. Even in situations where actual hours spent in the various calving activities in different seasons, management, facilities and size of cow herds, the data has little application to other regions or even from herd to herd within a region.
Researchers at the University of Nebraska Gudmundsen Sandhills Laboratory have recorded hours associated with calving in a March (330 mature cows) and a June (135 mature cows) calving herd. The total time recorded included checking, tagging and pairing out, assisting difficult births and doctoring.
The March calving cows and heifers were checked every 4 hours. June calving cows and heifers were only checked on pasture in mornings and evenings. Labor averaged 1.37 hours/head for March calvers and 0.97 hours/head for June calvers.
Even though birth weights were 3.1 lbs. heavier for June-born calves, calving assistance was lower. Part of the time required for June-calving cows was logged in traveling large pastures to locate calving cows, plus extra time catching and tagging calves in the expansive pasture setting.
In general, fewer health problems were encountered with June-born calves, so considerably less time was spent doctoring on a per-cow basis. In fact, in the March calving herd, a large portion of the time involved doctoring calves.
These data were collected over two calving seasons with one herd with a given management level in the Sandhills of Nebraska. The data may not necessarily reflect labor differences in different herds in different regions.
Producers whose herds calve in the fall often report considerably fewer calving problems, and thus less time and attention is required. Some feel having cows calve in open pastures undisturbed in isolated areas is beneficial in alleviating calving problems.
Producers often report that fall-born calves don't scour as much. Not only is less doctoring required, the warmer temperatures alleviate cold stress and the labor required in caring for calves.
Such considerable labor savings in fall calving can be offset, however, by the extra time spent feeding the cow herd in the winter. In some cases, creep feeding can add to the winter labor demand.
Some herds wean fall-born calves early (90-120 days) then graze the cows during winter when nutrient needs are relatively low. In these cases, labor requirements for the cows would be very low for the winter.
Some producers split their herds into spring and fall calving groups. One reason may be to spread intense labor periods over a longer period of time, as well as to utilize facilities, equipment, bulls, etc., more efficiently. Some producers with two or more calving seasons say they would prefer a break from working with calving cows.
Labor is not only a large expense, but finding quality labor can be a challenge. A non-traditional calving season can help cut labor cost and work more harmoniously with Mother Nature, thus decreasing labor and, in some cases, improving quality of life.
Both producer experience and limited research find that less labor is required when calving in the spring or fall. But operators need to determine their own level of savings, as well other important factors, in deciding his or her own “best” time to calve.
Ivan Rush is a University of Nebraska Extension beef specialist at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottsbluff.