Time to change calving seasons?

For many producers, the start of calving season is just around the corner. That means checking cows and calves in cold weather, and inevitably having to assist some during a cold downpour or blizzard. It's about that time, maybe, when you begin to think that calving during the warmer, drier weather might be nice. But then, things get back to normal, and the thought is forgotten.

Calving seasons tend to be based on what's always been done rather than an analysis of what might be the optimal calving season for your operation. For Barry Dunn, cattle producer and South Dakota State University extension beef specialist, the idea of changing his herd's calving season occurred five years ago. "I calved lots of cattle in the spring and fall because that was the way my family had traditionally calved," he says. "I began hearing antidotal stories about producers moving calving to coincide with nature when deer and bison have their babies but I wanted to see more research."

That research came to light when the University of Nebraska and South Dakota State University both presented research evaluating calving times on reproduction and economic performance. That research, along with his own inventory and analysis, convinced Dr. Dunn to push his calving season from March/April to May/June.

But Dr. Dunn and others are quick to point out that no one method will work for everyone. Each producer needs to consider his own cow herd, forage resources, geographical conditions and marketing options before making any changes.

Coincide needs and availability
The main reason in favor of pushing calving to late spring is to better coincide the nutritional needs of the cow with forage availability. Pastures typically don't start greening up until late spring. In addition, cows" nutritional requirements typically peak during late gestation and early lactation, points out Dr. Dunn. By coinciding those two events, you reduce the amount of supplemental feed that is needed.

"In a cow-calf operation, timing of calving and control of forage supply are our primary means of bringing nutritional demand and forage supply into balance," says Jim Gerrish, a private-grazing-land consultant. He analyzed data collected between 1986 and 1993 at the University of Missouri–Forage Systems Research Center. Lactation curves were developed on two groups, one calving between Feb. 15 and March 15 and another for a second group calving in late spring between March 16 and April 15. The later calving cows reached peak lactation more quickly and had higher peak lactation, due to fresh pasture becoming available earlier in the lactation period, he says.

Some might think that increased milk production would lead to more udder problems, but research doesn't prove that. And Dr. Dunn says his experience has presented no problems with mastitis or other concerns from full udders.

Conduct financial analysis
The biggest expense for any cow-calf operation tends to be raised and purchased feeds. By adjusting calving seasons to coincide with nutritional requirements, you can eliminate a lot of costs.

"The financial analysis on my own operation showed a large reduction in raised feed costs, labor and facilities," says Dr. Dunn. "If there's a chance of a calf freezing and getting exposed to bad weather, then you or someone else needs to be there with it. But if you're calving when the weather is warmer and there's not that risk, then you don't have to be there and that reduces some labor. You also eliminate the need for expensive facilities like a calving barn."

Determine risk
Weather is a risk when it comes to the timing of calving seasons. One cold, wet spring with high calf death losses might convince anyone to switch calving. But knowing geographical weather patterns helps determine if moving a calving season from one month to another might reduce the weather implications on calving.

Also, there are geographical risks that plague producers with certain types of forage. For example, producers that must deal with endophyte-infected fescue need to keep the timing of the toxin in mind when identifying optimal breeding and calving dates. "One major drawback of late spring calving in many parts of the country is that the corresponding breeding season occurs in the hottest part of summer. Compound the potential heat stress with fescue toxicity and the forage utilization benefits from later calving quickly evaporate," points out Dr. Gerrish.

Understand market goals
"Before any change in breeding, calving and weaning seasons are made, consider the marketing plan first," says Glenn Selk, Oklahoma State University extension reproduction specialist. "Are you willing and capable of retaining ownership to market the product at its best advantage? You need to study the seasonality of cattle prices before making a significant change."

He points out that producers in warmer climates have a jump on their Northern Plains counterparts by calving in February and March without too many weather-related problems. These early spring-born calves are weaned earlier and can be marketed ahead of the northern calves. That may mean a slightly better price, and that needs to be considered by those producers who use that marketing strategy in determining an optimal calving season.

Other considerations
There are many other considerations to evaluate in terms of determining optimal calving season. For instance, intermountain Western ranchers with grazing allotments have time limitations. They need calves born and given enough time to grow so they can be moved to the allotments by a certain date. In those cases, there are limitations with adjusting calving dates.

Whatever your situation, the timing of calving season presents the one management aspect that can make a huge economic impact on any operation. Therefore, take time to evaluate reasons behind when you calve and make changes that may be beneficial.