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Articles from 2003 In February

Alternative Calving Seasons

Raise efficiency and cut costs. Any producer would drool over the prospect of getting a nickel for each time he or she has heard or read that phrase.

Truth is, there's at least one other facet to longevity in cow-calf business — to get more for what you produce.

This 2003 edition of BEEF magazine's Cow-Calf Issue, our annual single-topic issue devoted exclusively to the cow-calf production segment of our readership, looks at all three — efficiency, costs and demand — in the context of calving season. The idea is to examine the potential profits and pitfalls regarding various calving times.

To do this, we've enlisted the help of some of the nation's top experts in a variety of topics dealing with a thorough examination of this issue. In addition, we also offer profiles on seven producers who have experimented with changes in calving season.

For more information on this issue and others having to do solely with cow-calf production and management, check out It's BEEF magazine's one-of-a-kind research resource for cow-calf producers. It's free and offers more than 2,000 research links to North America's latest and most pertinent fact sheets and university research reports for cow-calf production and management.

Going Against The Grain

Bill Roden goes against the local grain in calving routine. For the Cholame, CA, producer, that means winter calving on his Southern California Coastal Highlands ranch.

The region boasts rolling grass, forb-covered mountains and a relatively mild, year-round climate that can easily give way to severe late-summer and fall dry spells. Unlike his neighbors, Roden doesn't raise grain, so he doesn't have crop residues for fall-winter forage.

If he were to calve in the fall, Roden would have bulls out at what's often the worst possible time. He'd then be forced to feed hay to get his cows in breeding shape and maintain them well into gestation. Instead, he breeds in the spring for winter calving. Thus, he doesn't feed a lick of hay.

“We have one shot at hitting a ‘season’ here — from about February through May. It's very rare to have green forages after July 1 until February,” Roden says. “It doesn't pay for us to feed all that hay. We let them get ‘hot’ feed the easy way; let them graze it when they need it the most.”

The system puts Roden's calves on the ground in a narrow, early February to early March window. Any money spent on feed is for supplements normally fed in December and into January. “That's the toughest time of year on our cows,” he says.

A key to Roden's grazing management is filaree (Erodium cicutarium), a nutritious winter annual forb that peaks in feed value in late April (just in time for Roden's cows' first and second heat cycles) and remains high in nutrition into August.

As soon as calves are big enough to get along without their mothers, Roden starts thinking about weaning. This flexibility is the trump card of his overall management.

“The best thing I ever did was quit worrying about weaning weight,” he says. “The next best thing was when I quit selling my calves at weaning.”

With a flexible weaning regime, he can manage his forages with his own calves as they age into yearlings. And, in good years, he can bring in outside cattle, he says. By not being stuck in a weaning rut, he can also manage his marketing — usually selling 700-800-lb. feeders to south-central California feeders.

Roden's goal was once to wean a 500-lb. calf at five months of age. With better genetics matched up with changes in season of calving, he's reached that goal.

“By changing calving season we've evolved into a very flexible system that makes the best use of our green feed,” he says. “It's working well all the way around.”

Making Changes

The selection of a calving season could well be one of the most important economic decisions made on a ranch, says Burke Teichert. But the general manager of the Rex Ranch, Ashby, NE, part of one of the nation's largest cow-calf operations, warns that changes in calving season and weaning date can cause or require many other changes in a cow-calf production system.

“From personal experience I know that a change in calving season can, but won't always, make a huge difference in ranch profit,” Teichert says.

Since so many things can be affected by a change in calving season, one can't assess the complete effect of the change without considering the coincidental changes, he says.

Here's his list of factors deserving consideration:

Climatic and resource constraints. The feed quantity and quality available before, during and after the calving season can eliminate several choices or result in additional expenditures. It's the same for the availability of protection and stock water.

Competing enterprises. Sometimes work required in another enterprise — crops or other livestock — may make it difficult or impossible to calve at certain seasons. Don't let a few dollars in the small enterprise deprive you of big dollars in the large enterprise.

Winter feed costs. This is perhaps the biggest, most important concern as the economic consequences can be huge. Many producers have significantly reduced or eliminated hay production and feeding by using marginal hay land for grazing and buying supplemental hay.

But it's important to know your hay costs. So is figuring the effect on carrying capacity when you convert from haying to purchasing hay — or to just grazing alone.

Changes in carrying capacity. Difficult to estimate without some experience on your own ranch, Teichert says there may be a little reduction when you switch from haying to grazing until your grazing and pasture management under the new system improves. However, if you buy all your hay needs, it will result in an increase in carrying capacity that's relatively easy to calculate.

Potential changes in non-feed costs. When changing a calving date, be sure to consider possible changes in labor for range and pasture management, cattle care and machine care and maintenance.

Weaning dates may or may not change depending on marketing objectives, calf quality, grazing that may or may not be available, cost of winter pasture versus calf feed, etc.

Sale date, weights and prices are second only to changes in winter-feed costs and require careful analysis.

Range management. A change of calving season presents range management challenges and opportunities. If you move toward more winter grazing, it's easier to remove less feed during the growing season and create more options for the management of time and timing of grazings and recovery.

Summer calving in rotational grazing or on public land permits present unique problems that need solutions beforehand.

People benefits and problems. Can you and your co-workers get excited about this? People who are convinced they made a right choice have been very careful in their decision-making. The outcomes of the decision match their lifestyle desires, values and profit objectives.

“There are still lots of unanswered questions regarding weight per day of age at various market endpoints and cow rebreeding rates for different calving dates,” Teichert says. “But if a producer will carefully consider the above-listed factors, they'll make a reasonably good decision.”

Summer Offers Options

By shifting calving to early summer, Beach, ND, ranchers Joe and Shannon Fritz positioned themselves to take advantage of peaks in the market. For example, with prices fairly high for lightweight calves this past year, the couple sold many of their calves at weaning in December. In years when the market is better for yearlings, they hold the calves, run them on grass and sell them in late spring or summer.

“Our system adapts to what the market dictates,” Joe Fritz says, who, along with his wife, runs a herd of 300 black baldies in the rolling Badlands of western North Dakota. They've been ranching since 1987 and traditionally have calved around April 1.

Six years ago, they began experimenting with later calving after learning about it from area grazing networks and Extension and university specialists. The Fritzes eased into it by first trying mid-April, then early May. Now, they start calving about May 24.

Fritz says their move to summer calving was prompted by an effort to reduce feed costs and labor. They don't harvest crops or put up hay, and he adds they “could see the cost for wintering cows with early calving was becoming more expensive.”

Today, bulls are turned out on the cows in mid-August, the cow herd winters on open range with minimal supplements and calving is in late May and June.

Despite lower quality forage available at breeding time, he says they've had minimal problems with conception rates.

“Our Extension specialists shared research with us indicating a cow's ability to rebreed is determined more on her body condition at calving than time of breeding,” Fritz says. “That was a surprise, but it helped us overcome our hesitation about calving later and breeding in August.”

Depending on the year and the market prices, the Fritzes may wean calves and sell them in December. They've also experimented with leaving calves on the cows through winter simply to cut costs, then selling them as grass stockers or yearlings.

“It can cost $100 to winter a calf, so if the weather is moderate and there's forage available, we'll leave them on the cow,” Fritz says. But calves will be weaned if the winter is tough or if the cows are losing too much condition, he adds.

With their system, the Fritzes aim to utilize their forages as efficiently as possible. During the growing season, the cattle are moved to new pasture every 7-10 days and are even rotated through pastures in the winter, just not as frequently.

“We try to run the cows and yearlings as a single herd as much as we can and to move them frequently to extend the rest period on pastures,” Fritz says.

He notes that frequently moving the herd can make it more difficult to keep recent calvers and their calves with the herd. Because of this, they're considering using a set stocking rate during calving.

Another lesson of the switch to summer calving is the importance of bull selection.

“These animals are primarily raised on a grass situation, so it's important to select for bulls that produce early maturing, small-to-moderate-frame animals,” Fritz says. “We want animals that will gain well on forage,” adding that it's also important to have a cow herd that's low maintenance and fertile.

Fritz says they plan to continue their summer calving. “We like that it offers more options and flexibility with our marketing,” he adds.

Kindra Gordon is a freelance writer based in Spearfish, SD.

So Happy Together

Given rising carcass weights, increased production costs and unpredictable market prices, astute beef-cow producers are always searching for more efficient, profitable ways to manage their herds. Considering alternative calving seasons should be a part of that.

I've conducted cost-and-return analyses for producers who changed calving season but ended up reducing net income because they didn't make a corresponding change in marketing strategy.

Traditionally, calving decisions have been based on production efficiency — do whatever's easiest on the producer, then hope for acceptable market prices. Today, it's risky to hope for decent prices when you're selling in what's traditionally the season's lowest market. Market timing is critical with today's small profit margins.

A key motivation for changing calving season is the potential for market premiums associated with some alternative calving seasons. Financial rewards are going to ranchers who select a calving season not by convenience but seasonal price patterns.

The financial rewards favor ranchers who select calving seasons that produce in-herd “market-timing points” during the year that match “seasonal price-pattern peaks.” In other words, seasonal price patterns suggest optimal market-timing points for marketing beef cattle.

Seasonal Prices For Slaughter Cattle

Any given year, slaughter cattle prices typically follow a specific price pattern. Figure 1 depicts a typical price pattern for slaughter steers, which is generally experienced during the upward — and downward — years of the cattle cycle. Prices tend to hit the low in late summer (August-October) and work upward to an April peak.

The April price peak marks the time frame between the end of “old-crop” cattle and the beginning of “new crop” cattle. He who produces new crop cattle first, wins. For example, (as of this writing), February 2003 Live Cattle Futures prices had already hit $80/cwt. before retracting. The reality, however, is that most new crop cattle will be harvested in June, July and August — typically, months of the seasonal lows. The large number of spring-calving herds is the reason most cattle are harvested in June, July and August.

The data suggests that slaughter-cattle seasonal price patterns are changing. The 1975-1984 seasonal price index had the seasonal high in May. In the 1985-1994 time period, cattlemen were filling that May hole and driving the seasonal high to April.

I believe the peak price in recent years may have now moved to March — at least that's true the past two years. I wouldn't be surprised to see 2003's spring spot-market price peak occur in March 2003.

Prices For Seasonal 700-800-Lb. Feeder Cattle

Figure 2 indexes the seasonal price pattern for 700-800-lb. feeder steers. Again, there's a prominent annual price pattern. In the earlier 1975-1984 time period, feeder cattle prices peaked in April and hit a seasonal low in November-December; most spring-born calves are sold in October-November at the annual seasonal low.

The more recent time period (1985-1994) suggests a distinctly different price pattern. Peak price moved from April to September, with a second peak in January.

With today's genetically fast-track cattle, it's hard to produce 800-lb. yearlings off grass to match the current September seasonal price highs. But that's what the market wants and will reward.

Regarding the January price peak, today's Northern Plains' spring-born, fast-track calves are typically weaned and then slowed down in the backgrounding enterprise for marketing as 800-lb. feeders in February-March. This program worked better under the old seasonal price patterns than under the new seasonal price pattern.

Seasonal Prices For 500-600-Lb. Feeder Calves

Figure 2 also presents the seasonal price pattern for Northern Plains' 500-600-lb. feeder calves for two different 10-year periods — 1975-1984 and 1985-1994. While they tend to follow the same general pattern, there are some shifts occurring.

In the earlier pattern, feeder prices increase from an October low through the June high. In the later index, prices increase December through the April high, then decrease from April through the August low; a mini-peak occurs in September.

The seasonal price pattern suggests that long-term economic rewards will go to the calving season that produces weaned calves for sale in a March-April time period and/or for the September mini-high.

Cull-Cow Seasonal Prices

The seasonal cull-cow price pattern is the most distinct and pronounced. Figure 2 shows that 1975-1984 peaks seasonally in April and hits a November low. The 1984-1994 seasonal peaks are in February, increasing through September, and dramatically decreasing into November. Most spring-calving cull cows are sold at fall weaning time, thus the November seasonal price low.

Match Calving Season To Optimal Market-Timing

Figure 3 shows my suggestions for the best calving season that matches key market-timing points identified via the seasonal market price patterns. For example, April is typically the seasonal price-pattern high for selling weaned calves. The calving season that best meets this “April optimal market timing” is fall calving.

Harlan Hughes is a North Dakota State University professor emeritus. He lives in Laramie, WY. Reach him at 701/238-9607 or [email protected].

The Health Equation

In contemplating a change in calving season, the health considerations for young, newborn calves are paramount. After all, weather is the principle factor affecting calf health.

If you're constantly fighting muddy, cold conditions due to snow or rainy weather, then you may want to opt to calve in the late spring, summer or fall. The risk of wet, muddy conditions is typically less during these times than in early spring. Consider these points:

  • Calves born in a dry, clean environment are less likely to scour and have respiratory problems. One report found calf death loss at or shortly after birth to be 1.2% for fall calves versus 5.6% for early spring calves.

  • Fall-calving cows have fewer calving difficulties than early spring-calving cows; calves born unassisted are more vigorous at birth and stand to nurse more quickly.

    In nearly every study to determine the most common causes of neonatal calf death, the majority were caused by dystocia and poor weather at or near calving. In Plains states, a late spring snowstorm can spell disaster for the calf crop. In the southern Midwest and northern part of the Southeast, the worst-case scenario is a heavy, wet March snow on top of existing muddy conditions that chills calves and kills them due to exposure or inability to nurse.

  • There are two peaks for morbidity in calves. The first comes in the first weeks of life; the second is in the first 30 days after weaning.

While it may appear that the calving season would have little effect on bovine respiratory disease (BRD) at 6-8 months of age, studies show calves weaned at a time of wide temperature fluctuations experience greater sickness in the feedlot. One of fall calving's real health benefits is that calves are weaned in late March through April versus October-November weaning for spring-born calves.

A better alternative for early spring calves is to wean in mid-August to September when weather is less volatile.

Also, fall-born calves have more likely been exposed to creep feed, thus easing their nutritional transition at weaning.

Other Considerations

No matter the calving season, there are three reasons to separate heifers from cows during the period 60 days pre-calving until the start of rebreeding:

  • Heifers need more feed. Not having to compete with older animals allows them to get their fair share.

  • Heifers tend to have more calving problems. Heifers in a small group are easier to examine and take less labor.

  • Calves born to heifers are more susceptible to disease than calves from older cows. Keeping cows and heifers separate until their calves are 30-90 days of age will pay huge dividends.

Calving heifers 21 days ahead of the cows is often recommended. This is a positive suggestion in regard to future conception rate, but it can negatively impact calf health.

A herd calving from March 1 to April 30 would have the earliest calving heifers dropping calves the first week of February. If that thought makes you cringe, the plan may not work for you. Obviously, if you have only a few heifers and have adequate shelter in case of heavy snow, extreme cold or an abundance of mud, this plan could still work for you.

Still, the aforementioned weather concerns may be a reason to stop fighting Mother Nature and switch to a more reasonable calving season. Beef cattle are supposed to be low labor, low input (but high profit) livestock that work hard for you.

Herd Health Programs

  • Vaccination programs for cows and calves are similar for fall and spring calving herds. General vaccination recommendations for cows and bulls include leptospirosis, infectious bovine rhinotraecheitis (IBR) and bovine viral diarrhea (BVD).

    Meanwhile, calves should be vaccinated for the clostridials, IBR, BVD, parainfluenza3 (PI3) and bovine respiratory syncitial virus (BRSV).

    For vaccination recommendations specific to your location, work with your local herd-health veterinarian to tailor a vaccination program to your operation.

  • Other health management procedures that should be performed include preg-checking the cows and breeding soundness exams (BSE) on the bulls.

    Preg-checking time shifts with the breeding season. A benefit to fall calving is that open cows can be sold immediately, at a time when the cull-cow market is typically at its peak.

  • Have your herd-health veterinarian perform a complete BSE on each bull before each breeding season, even if a bull passed his BSE in the spring.

    The physical exam should include eyes and feet, scrotal measurement, testicular palpation, accessory sex gland assessment, and motility and morphology of the semen sample. Observe all bulls passing the BSE to be sure they actually breed cows.

    In some cases, bull numbers can be reduced if you have both a fall and spring calving herd, allowing you to more efficiently utilize your bull battery.

  • Parasite control is important. Generally, deworm after a hard freeze in the fall so that cows are over-wintered free of parasites. They can also be dewormed in the spring, six weeks after pasture turnout.

After deworming, a cow will be clean but will become parasitized again when she grazes an infected pasture. Be sure to use a Type II dewormer, which eliminates all adults and developing stages within the cow. Check with your local herd-health veterinarian on products and to develop a program specific to your environment and operation.

Jerry Rusch, DVM, is a beef cattle practitioner with Spring Mill Veterinary Service in Mitchell, IN. W. Mark Hilton, DVM, is a clinical assistant professor of beef production medicine at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN.

Match Game

The choice of calving season may well be a rancher's most important management decision. Thus, all ranch resources should be carefully inventoried and potential outcomes explored before any changes are made.

Is it possible the targeted level of genetic inputs should differ for various calving seasons? The answers aren't clear-cut but working through the sometimes-conflicting factors can reveal opportunities to more efficiently use resources to produce beef.

Match Genetics And Environment

Table 1 depicts how production environment can dictate different levels of genetic inputs for several major traits. If the environment offers abundant feed and low environmental stress, the genetic inputs (through choice of breeds and individual sires) might be high for milk, mature size and lean meat yield. Meanwhile, the need for genetic fleshing ability might be low.

Contrast this to the opposite extreme of genetic targets for areas of sparse feed availability and high environmental stress. In this discussion, fertility and calving ease are not being considered because they must be maintained at a high level regardless of the production environment.

Although these two examples represent extremes, the point is that optimum genetic inputs do differ for various production environments. The calving season does interact with feed availability and environmental stress at key times such as calving, rebreeding and post-weaning recovery of body condition.

Calving Season And Environment

Situations where producers have mismatched their choice of calving season to the production environment abound for a variety of excuses. It may be just tradition or a producer's concentration on a single trait like actual weaning weight.

Table 1. Level of genetic input for various traits by production environment
Production Environment Level of Genetic Input for Various Traits
Feed availability1 Envir. stress2 Mature milk Fleshing ability3 Lean ability Yield
Abundant Medium Sparse Low Medium High High Medium Low High Medium Low Low Medium High High Medium Low
1Feed availability is the quantity of grazable forage available as a product of rainfall, soil type, growing season and plant species.
2Environmental stress results from sustained exposure to heat, cold, mud altitude or pests.
3Fleshing ability is the ability to store body fat and regulate energy requirements as seasonal changes in feed availability occur.
Adapted from Beef Improvement Federation Guidelines for uniform Beef Improvement Programs, 2002.

It's evident that February-March calves will be heavier than April-May calves at a set, shared weaning date. But if the extra weight per calf comes with higher death loss, more calving labor and more harvested feed fed during lactation, then the April-May calving season could easily be a more profitable system.

Starting the calving season at or just prior to peak native forage production — both in quality and quantity — should result in: excellent calving conditions, thus less calf death loss; faster return to estrus in cows; less harvested feed fed in late gestation; and little or no supplemental feed fed during lactation.

Such a system is even more beneficial to young cows, especially wet two-year olds.

Though these comments take a Northern Great Plains perspective, location from north to south (colder to warmer) and west to east (drier to wetter) greatly dictates when peak forage production occurs and will affect the choice of calving season.

Genetic Inputs To Calving Season

High genetic milk level and large mature size in early spring-calving cows should be avoided. First, it's inefficient to feed a cow to produce milk to feed her calf. Secondly, early calving of larger cows puts them 60-90 days away from peak forage production, thus making them totally dependent on harvested feed to support lactation.

When lactation occurs on green, growing forage or high-quality cured forage, a bit higher level of genetic milk might be acceptable because it likely won't interfere with the cow's ability to breed back. Fertility and cow body condition should always be used as the “yardsticks” to measure fitness of genetic inputs to calving season and production environment.

An additional consideration for alternative calving seasons is that cows calving in hot weather will have more pressure on mammary tissue due to heat and edema. As a result, higher milking cows likely would have more udder problems. Summer- and early fall-calving herds should be prepared to cull a bit heavier on teat and udder function.

The targeted method of marketing calves can impact the choice of calving season and argues for moderating genetic milk level and mature size. Early spring calves are more likely to be finished in feedlots as calves and harvested at 13-15 months, whereas most summer- and fall-born calves may be weaned earlier, grown slower and summered on grass before being finished and harvested at 16-20 months. Unless calves are sold directly off the cow, there's little value from high genetic levels of milk or mature size.

A case can be made that genetic fleshing ability would be very important regardless of calving season. However, spring-calving cows would seem to benefit the most from a higher genetic ability to store fat since they would be lactating more days on harvested feed. Thus, their body fat would come at a higher cost than for summer or fall calving cows storing body fat from grazed forage.

Carcass Quality And Calving Seasons

Although marbling in finished steers and body condition in cows aren't perfectly correlated, the traits are related as evidenced by breed differences, i.e., British breed steers will generally marble higher and cows will have higher fleshing ability than most Continental breeds. Conversely, the Continental breeds would have a distinct advantage in muscle mass or lean yield.

The antagonism between lean yield and marbling (and perhaps fleshing ability in cows) is well documented. Given known breed differences, crossbreeding can be used to strike a balance between these traits.

Market Goals And Calving Season

If the market goal is to produce cattle for a higher marbling program, then the month those cattle are harvested is very important. The USDA Choice-Select spread for box beef price indicates that when fewer Choice cattle are in the market, the spread is large ($8-$12). Alternately, when many Choice cattle are available, the Choice-Select spread is smaller ($4).

USDA's 5-year average Choice-Select spread for box beef indicates the supply of Choice cattle is greatest from December to April and lowest in June-November. Finishing cattle in hot weather (last 60 days of feeding) may also reduce the percent Choice cattle and affect programs that target higher marbling markets. Thus, market goals can have a big impact on the choice of calving seasons.

Multiplying The Bull Battery

Having two calving seasons instead of identifying the one “best” calving season may appeal to some production systems. If cow numbers are similar, a producer could get double use of the same bull battery.

Some producers might also choose to relax heifer development by allowing heifers born in one herd to calve in the second herd at 30 months instead of the traditional 24 months, thus reducing calving difficulty.

Additionally, wet, two-year olds that failed to rebreed in one herd could be given a brief opportunity to rebreed in the second herd before culling. Depending on the marketing goal, there could be an advantage in slotting cattle for harvest that are the product of two calving seasons.

Double use of a bull battery has few drawbacks for mature bulls, but would pressure yearling bulls. Excellent nutrition and management would be required for yearlings during the “rest period” between each of the multiple breeding seasons.

Definite dates to remove bulls from the breeding pasture would need to be carefully adhered to in order to have adequate “rest periods” between multiple breeding seasons that may be as short as 45 days. Breeding soundness exams for all bulls would be critical prior to each of the multiple breeding seasons.

Jim Gosey, PhD, is a University of Nebraska-Lincoln beef cattle specialist.

40 Years Of Fall Calving

Fall calving is old hat to J.W. Nuckolls of Hulett, WY. He turned to August — September calving 42 years ago for two primary reasons: to minimize losses due to the pine needle abortion that's endemic to his region, and to better manage labor on his diversified sheep and cattle ranch.

“We have a shed lambing operation,” he says. “It takes all the labor we can muster just to handle lambing. We knew spring calving just wouldn't work at all.”

As a kid, Nuckolls watched his dad at times lose 30% of his calves to pine needle abortion in his spring-calving cows.

“They can slip a calf anytime after the first snow by eating pine needles,” he explains. “It's a problem you have to manage around if you have significant numbers of Ponderosa Pine trees.”

Nuckolls feeds hay to his pregnant cows when fall grass gets short. That way, they're less prone to forage in and around pine trees and ingest needles.

Initially, calving was in September — October, he says, but found he needed to “get the calves grown-up and haired-out a little more by calving just a little earlier.” Now, he manages breeding to complete a 45-day calving period by mid-September.

Nuckolls likes to split the cow herd into age groups for pasture management and to minimize numbers at branding.

“We don't like big brandings,” he says. “Since we're not around the cows much, we can keep better track of them in smaller bunches of 50 to 60 head.”

No matter the calving regime, feed demands in his area can get quite high at times. Feeding cattle hay 5 to 5 ½ months each year is the norm.

“The feed demands do get quite high at times with fall calving. I think that's what spooks a lot of people,” he says. “When you have sub-zero temperatures and that cow is milking, her winter feed demands can easily double. Fortunately, those spells are usually short-lived here.”

Come the month of May, Nuckolls will wean calves off the mature cows. Calves off younger cows may be weaned as early as February. Their mamas go to winter grass.

“Our calves average 630 lbs. at weaning, which probably isn't as heavy as a lot of guys who spring calve,” he says. “We lose a certain percentage of young cows to breed-back failure, especially if we have a nasty fall or a stressful winter.”

Nuckolls raises his own replacement heifers. May-weaned heifers will start cycling in early summer; cycle through the summer; and breed mid-October. The tough part is keeping the young heifers away from neighbors' bulls.

At times, he's been disappointed by the percentage of heifers bred the first cycle. Only about 35-38% get bred in a “timely manner,” he says. Then, there's a little gap before the remainder of the heifers get bred.

He's retained ownership the past 15-18 years, but stresses that early summer can be an attractive marketing time for mid-weight calves. He wonders if marketing alliances wouldn't be better off encouraging fall calving, especially with higher quality, better-grading “northern” cattle.

“I would think it would round out some of their needs for feeder calves,” he says.

A big advantage to fall calving is fall-born calves tend to be hardier than spring calves, Nuckolls says. Also, they develop a rumen earlier in life due to their exposure to hay and winter forages for a good part of their pre-weaning lives.

“When they hit spring grass, they really take off — put on 4 to 5 lbs./day,” he says.

One drawback to fall calving, he says, is that because the cow herd has such little human contact, they tend to be a little wild in disposition. “We work on that all the time, but we just aren't around them much. After all, the cows are on their own during calving; even the first-calf heifers,” he says.

There are advantages and disadvantages with fall calving, he notes. Besides pine needle abortion and labor management, he points to a simple environmental reason.

“The springs here can be really tough when the ground thaws. Manage around that and you can avoid a muddy mess. In this area, March can be one of the nastiest months of the year to calve,” he says.

Market Today, Breed Tomorrow

When you're on the opposite side of the calving calendar and you hear how much your neighbor snagged for his fall-born calves at weaning, it can be awfully tempting to consider alternatives.

After all, the scarcity of fall-born calves means they typically bring significantly more than spring-born calves at the same weight (Table 1). In fact, hit the February market with a 550-lb. calf and the market is historically 2% above the annual average, points out Cattle-Fax analyst Dave Weaber.

“Spring calves sold in October are in a market that's typically 4% below the annual average. So there's a 6% difference in calf revenue to work with, $30 per head on just light calves,” he adds.

Never mind that:

  • those same calves carried into a feedlot after summer grazing (Table 2) have the opportunity to sell as fed cattle in March and April, typically the highest fed markets of the year (Table 3);

  • and the fact that open fall cows discovered during preg-checking can be sent directly to market in March and April, which is usually the highest cull market of the year (Table 4).

Unfortunately, price is not created equal to cost and profit, nor is the calf itself the only resource a cow-calf producer markets.

“Before any change in breeding, calving and weaning seasons are made, consider the marketing plan first,” suggests Glenn Selk, a beef Extension reproduction specialist for Oklahoma State University (OSU).

Weighty Considerations

For one thing, pounds still drive every cattle market. Consequently, fall calves that are enough lighter than their spring contemporaries may never gross as much even at higher prices.

As an example, John McGrath, who manages the Beef Division of Amana Farms Inc., in Iowa, says adding cows to their fall program hasn't increased the cost of production, though the cost/cwt. of fall calves may be higher because of lighter weaning weights.

But in their operation (see page 36), they can make up for it with retained ownership. For perspective, their spring cows calve mid-March to mid-May and wean at 180-200 days. Their fall cows calve August to September and wean at 150-170 days.

Move farther south, though, and Selk isn't convinced fall-born calves necessarily wean at lighter weights than spring-born calves. In fact, he says the OSU fall herd weans as much or more as its spring cows. Typically, Selk says herds in the Southern Plains calve in September and October, then wean during the first half of summer between the end of June and the first of July.

Of course, age of the calf impacts weaning weights, too. At OSU, those fall calves are typically weaned 30-60 days later than spring calves; at Amana the fall calves are typically weaned 30 days earlier than their spring counterparts so they can be slotted into summer grazing programs.

Same Costs — Different Priority

Next, the cost of producing a weaned cwt. of calf can vary significantly. This means that a higher gross price that comes at a higher cost may be a losing proposition.

However, contrary to the popular notion that it must cost more to feed a lactating cow through the winter (fall cow) than pouring the groceries into a gestating cow in the late winter (spring cow), Selk says that, managed effectively, the cow cost in both situations is similar.

In Oklahoma's database for Standardized Performance Analysis, he says carrying cost for the fall cows is a few dollars more per head on average. Rather than cost, it's a matter of when cows need the most nutritional boost.

Table 1: Seasonal Calf Prices (550 lb.)*
Month Average Price ($/cwt.)
January 84.58
February 86.16
March 88.88
April 88.62
May 86.44
June 85.93
July 86.54
August 85.29
September 83.64
October 82.38
November 82.91
December 84.18
*1991-2000 Source: Cattle-Fax
Table 2: Seasonal Feeder Steer Prices (750 lb.)*
Month Average Price ($/cwt.)
January 76.94
February 76.19
March 75.29
April 74.55
May 74.04
June 75.21
July 76.72
August 76.03
September 75.35
October 75.08
November 75.74
December 76.28
*1991-2000 Source: Cattle-Fax

In the case of spring cows, McGrath points out the highest nutritional requirements come during the winter ahead of calving. For fall cows, it's heading into breeding season as forage quality declines.

Incidentally, Selk says, “I always encourage producers to consider what will be going on during breeding season. We've got to have that as optimal as possible.”

Specifically, he refers to the requisite manpower, nutrition, breeding-friendly temperatures and other basic components that need to be accounted for in considering an added or alternate calving season.

“As we expand the discussion into having both a fall and a spring herd, some argue that anything that's a gain in one is a loss in the other,” Selk says.

But there's no question that operating on both sides of the fence offers risk management. “It's a diversification strategy, not putting all of your eggs into one basket,” Weaber says.

Marketing What You Have

Along with the marketing and cost trade-offs, there are opportunity costs unique to each operation that may make one strategy patently ludicrous while acting as the fulcrum of profitability in another.

For instance, Selk says there are cow-calf producers in western Oklahoma who know a fall program would be more profitable to their cattle enterprise. But their wheat operation, the profit from which drives their overall sustainability, demands they don't calve at the same time they need to get wheat ground ready or planted.

Conversely, in Iowa, Joe Sellers, Extension livestock field specialist for Iowa State University, says that: “If cow-calf producers want to diversify by adding an enterprise, it might make as much sense to add a fall calving program as something else.” His point is that folks with the expertise, facilities and desire to raise calves may be better off doing more of the same than beginning a backgrounding enterprise, stocker program or something else that requires different resources than a cow-calf producer may have in place without making additional investment.

On both counts, both labor and intellectual capital are among the resources being marketed in either fall or spring. That goes for cattle labor.

The same bulls, more cows and two different seasons means that pregnancy costs go down. Plus, if feed costs allow, Selk says another small edge of two calving seasons is the capability to take fall-born replacement heifers and keep them open another few months into the breeding season.

“Because these replacement heifers will be 30 months old when they calve the first time rather than 24 months, they should be more likely to breed early in the breeding season and calve with less difficulty,” he says. So, these replacements should have more value whether they're kept or marketed.

For that matter, cows allowed to go through a fair portion of the summer without a calf at side — the extra condition heading into winter — can increase cycling and breeding percentages over spring cows.

This added reproductive performance, along with calving ease and calf health are among the benefits McGrath found with his fall program. Whether it's the impact of summer weather on metabolism and other biologic functions, or the simple fact the weather allows cows to get more exercise, McGrath says they have less dystocia with the fall-calving cows. Likewise, calving in the fall means he doesn't have to fight flies and pinkeye like he does with the spring-born calves.

None of that is to say that spring, fall or a combination of the two is the answer.

“All of this varies so much from one operation to another that it's certainly no one size fits all solution,” Selk says.

Plotting Strategy

As much as weighing the net benefits of a fall or a spring season, Selk points out it's a matter of weighing the trade-offs of timing within season. For instance, Selk says that if a producer calves cows in late spring, they're almost forced to look at early weaning because no one wants a 400- to 500-lb. calf nursing a cow as the stresses of mid-winter are coming on.

Table 3: Seasonal Choice Fed Steer Prices*
Month Average Price ($/cwt.)
January 69.98
February 70.29
March 71.55
April 71.35
May 69.35
June 67.59
July 66.61
August 66.63
September 67.22
October 68.49
November 69.74
December 69.12
*1991-2000 Source: Cattle-Fax
Table 4: Seasonal Slaughter Cow Prices*
Month Average Price ($/cwt.)
January 40.38
February 42.51
March 43.52
April 43.43
May 43.02
June 42.55
July 42.30
August 42.20
September 40.08
October 38.36
November 37.19
December 38.16
*1991-2000 Source: Cattle-Fax

On the other hand, he emphasizes, “If they're retaining ownership, an opportunity for fall-calving programs is to wean early at a time those calves could fit into a summer stocking program. They can get them into a summer stocking program or take them through the feedlot and market them in what are typically the highest fed markets of the year.”

Moreover, Selk points out, “Two calving seasons fit best for herds with more than 80 cows. To take full advantage of the economies of scale, a ranch needs to produce at least 20 steer calves in the same season to realize the advantage associated with increased lot size.”

So, while some variables of beef production are beyond producer control, Selk says, “Breeding, calving, weaning and marketing dates are not the product of Mother Nature, but are managerial decisions that don't have to conform to tradition.”