The good, the bad and the ugly of fall calving in Iowa

There are many factors to consider no matter which season calving begins.

October 12, 2022

5 Min Read
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Many producers across the state have just endured the excessive heat and humidity we expect from Iowa summers. Unfortunately, many also experienced far less rainfall than we’re accustomed to over that same time period. Much of the western United States needs rain and has for some time. Cow liquidation has been a necessity in many of the predominant cow-calf producing states. A climbing calf market and strong bred cow prices have Midwestern producers considering a fall calving herd…and now is the time to make that decision. Bulls need turned out next month.

The famous Eastwood spaghetti western The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is an effective approach to fall calving for any rookies out there. There are a lot of positive aspects of fall calving, but also some things that put Iowa producers at a distinct disadvantage to those in other parts of the country.

We’ll start with The Good

Many producers who have traditionally calved in the early spring have termed fall calving as EASY. There are a number of reasons for that. First of all, the cows calve on grass instead of in a drylot, which makes the disease pressure and bacterial load much less. Secondly, the weather is considerably more comfortable on average than February blizzards or March mud. We’ll talk about the downside of that in a minute. Finally, and maybe the most important part of the easy, is calving ease. On average, fall calves come lighter than their spring counterparts. Plus, cows have grazed (exercised) all summer and are simply in better shape to endure labor. All said, there’s less assistance necessary, so a reduction in labor often is realized. That’s good, because the combine or the grain cart awaits this time of year.

Another benefit to fall calving can be bull power. If a producer spring calves too, it’s likely the bulls have been standing idle since August, tearing up feed bunks, hay rings and whatever else they can find. Put ‘em back to work about Thanksgiving through Groundhog Day, and you’ll get a 75-day calving window. The bulls will be happier breeding cows in cool December than sweltering July. You’ll be happier too, since you don’t have to chore the bull pen for 75 days. The bull battery still gets a four-month break to recover before breeding the spring herd commences again. Remember to semen check in November prior to turnout. Forgetting this step is often how fall calving herds start; more on that in The Ugly section.

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Now for The Bad

The industry often refers to “spring” calves as anything born from January 1st to May 31st. Similarly, the “fall” calving window seems to start in August and end around Christmas. Depending on which end of the fall window you choose, the challenges can be far different. Starting in August through the first half of September can force cows to endure labor in extreme heat and humidity. Access to shade is imperative in the early fall. Unfortunately, that often pushes cows to calve near Iowa’s shady creek banks, where wobbly newborns can get in real trouble. The other challenge of early fall is flies. Nothing loves a wet nose and udder more than flies, and they can pose some real problems to fresh calves. Consider a topical treatment for fly control or even a garlic-laced mineral to combat this issue. Better yet, find a hilltop with trees, where breeze is more prevalent, and create a fall calving pasture. Build or create a water system if there isn’t a natural one.

The fall calving system in Iowa requires both fed cattle and replacement females to endure two Iowa winters before they can generate any revenue for the operation. Delivered feed comes at a cost, particularly when fuel, grain and hay prices are high like they are currently. Feed efficiency and growth suffer as well; Iowa cattle simply have to use a larger portion of their diet to stay warm than their southern competitors. On the flipside, weaned fall calves in Iowa could be used as backgrounders, capturing the excess grass growth we experience in May and early June. Capturing that excess growth in a round bale seems to be more popular, especially when farm labor is preoccupied with planting soybeans and spraying corn.

The Ugly

Usually, the ugly part of fall calving in Iowa has to do with the reason the herd started in the first place. The bull went sterile. They just milked too hard. The cows got thin. Grass got too short. Calving in the spring was a wreck. The list goes on. Rather than culling open females from the spring herd, producers justify “rolling them” to a fall calving cow. Unless the producer’s profit margin per cow is larger than their cost to carry an unproductive cow for 5-6 months, this is rarely a profitable venture in the short term. More importantly, the nucleus of the fall herd often is a group of females that lack natural fertility and/or the ability to thrive in the environment they call home.

Cheap cows from drought-stricken parts of the country are a popular “starter pack” for a fall herd. While there are sometimes profitable outcomes to this venture, proceed with caution. Though the females can regain weight quickly during the breeding season and through gestation, they still will be required to adjust to the grasses you have available. Fortunately, you won’t be asking her to lactate during most of this period. However, you will be asking her to recover her body condition and rebreed at the end of the growing season.

All said, many producers in Iowa who have transitioned part or all of their herd to fall calving have stated, “I’ll never go back.” The challenges of winter cold, spring mud, scours, and pulling calves simply trump whatever trials they face in the fall. The futures markets are giving strong indication that herd expansion needs to happen wherever it can. Besides, everyone is looking For A Few Dollars More or even A Fistful of Dollars in today’s beef industry.

Source: Iowa State University

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