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A Balancing Act

Ranch profitablitiy depends on pounds, price and production cost. All three must be considered in selcting optimum calving and marketing times.

Every ranch has a unique set of resources to take into account in setting a calving season, says Connie Quinn, Quinn Cow Co., Chadron, NE. Simply categorized into forage base, genetics base and the commitment to good management practices, Quinn says today's rancher must define optimum levels of performance within the limit of his or her own resources, as well as input costs.

Today, many producers feel that lowering production costs will become more important than improving biological efficiency. Actually, Quinn says, producers will be challenged daily to balance the two.

“A beef cow's nutrient requirements are highest two to three months prior to calving and about the same length after calving,” Quinn says.“For cost-effective management, it's important that a sufficient forage nutrient supply of high quality coincide as closely as possible with calving date.”

In selecting a calving season, she says primary considerations include the total pounds of calf or yearling produced on the ranch and the cost-to-return ratio of feed, labor and protection. Thus, an accurate set of production and financial records are needed to determine the cost to produce pounds of calf — as well as costs relating to reproductive efficiency of the herd.

“Pounds produced is still the primary source of income for many producers. If delaying calving season results in a decrease in pounds produced, it must be more than offset by decrease in input cost or an increase in market price,” she says.

Another consideration is the effect on replacement heifers and their lifetime productivity, Quinn adds. “Of course, the decision must also be made within the constraints of the goals, management and marketing strategies of the ranch.”

Digging Into The Research

Quinn notes the following research on calving date and its related production factors:

  • In South Dakota, as in other northern states, calving date has changed significantly over the past 20 years. Average calving date in South Dakota in 1978-1979 was May 1, with average weaning weight at 469 lbs. For the years 1991-1999, the average was March 1, with weaning weight of 519 lbs.

    This 60-day difference in birth date produced only a 40-lb. difference in weaning weight, she points out. It might be surmised that the extra 40 lbs. was gained at a less than optimum cost/input ratio because the cost to calve early in the year generally requires additional feed resources.

  • North Dakota research shows a change in average weaning weight of 479 to 612 lbs. from 1978 to 1998, and an average 14-day difference in calving date. This data set showed larger differences in the weaning weights and less difference in the average date calved. This suggests the increase in weaning weight was due to genetic improvement.

    Again, the data did not include the input costs, but the significantly heavier calves could offset additional input costs.

  • Other North Dakota research included economic analysis on a three-year comparison from 1996-1998 of cow cost and market-adjusted net return for cows calved March-April, May-June or October. The lowest cow cost was for cows calved in May-June, followed closely by March-April calving. October group cows had the highest costs.

  • In Nebraska, studies on March versus June calving systems considered both production and economic measures. Looking at the average cost/cwt. of weaned steer, they found March-born calves had a cost of $31.76 compared to $24.11 for June calves. These costs only included those different in the March and June calves, such as harvested feeds, supplements, etc.

    The largest line item difference was in harvested feed costs, as March calving cows required $125.65 and June cows required only $4.40. The costs for purchased feed (supplement), salt and mineral were $15.78 for March calves and $21.23 for June calves.

    Grazing costs were $31.07 for March calves and $57.60 for June calves. The total feed and labor costs from weaning to slaughter, which included cow costs/calf weaned, was $38.84 for March steers and $31.85 for June steers. Economic analysis showed net economic return for March and June calves to weaning of $86 and $151, respectively, in the Nebraska study.

    For ranchers with a high harvested-feed cost, this data would merit further study in a consideration of calving season.

  • In Montana, economic models were used to evaluate March 15, May 15 or Aug. 15 calving. The results differed from the Nebraska work. Weaning dates were Oct. 31, Dec. 15 and Feb. 1.

The bottom line was that the ranch gross margin (gross ranch returns minus variable costs) was highest for weaned calves born in the March 15 time frame. The researchers concluded that for cow-calf producers in the Northern Great Plains, spring calving is expected to be more profitable than calving in early summer or early fall.

Profitability Factors

“We must realistically evaluate the costs of producing big calves,” Quinn says. “We should consider building a systems approach to our operations that reduces costs and maximizes returns. Calving season is only part of the system.”

As the research results demonstrate, not all research or models agree as to what the optimum calving season is. It's important to understand the ecological and management systems under which the research was conducted and closely examine the information for not only similarities but also differences that might exist.

“Simply stated, profitability depends on pounds, price and production cost,” Quinn concludes. “These three aspects must be considered in choosing the most profitable time for calving and marketing.”