Is it Time to Consider Fall Calving?

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First in the three-part series, "Fall Calving in the Cornbelt."
By: Patrick Gunn, Iowa State University Extension cow-calf specialist and Joe Sellers, ISU Extension beef program specialist

In last October's Growing Beef issue, we discussed the obvious value of pregnancy-checking the herd as early as feasible to identify open and late-calving females. (Read the article here.) For spring-calving operations, hopefully this best management practice is on your calendar for the near future. In addition to last year’s reasons, however, pregnancy checking may lend itself to an alternative economic benefit for producers that are willing to reassess their production calendar.

In the past, it was almost always recommended that open cows needed a career change because it could take 5 or more years to break-even on her nonproductive season. However, reassessing this thought process may be of value, as continued contraction of the national herd and sub-$4 corn has resulted in five-weight weanlings bringing in excess of $1250 in many markets this fall.

CattleFax has forecasted cow-calf profits over cash costs of $400 per unit for the 2014-2015 fiscal year. In Iowa, cash + fixed costs for 2013 averaged approximately $775 per cow, but with reduced feed prices, it is likely to be lower this year. Taking this into account, a cow from an average herd would now only need 2 more calves to make up for her non-productive year if producers sustain profitability of this magnitude over the next couple of years.

Now obviously, some cows have to be culled due to age, structure, teeth, thriftiness, or overall productivity. However, some cows may be open due to circumstances beyond their control. Recent years of drought and extreme heat resulting in poor forage quality and bull sterility have led to increased proportions of open cows. Unfortunately, in areas of the fescue belt (including southern Iowa), these problems have been intensified due to fescue toxicosis.

These climatic challenges have presented the opportunity to develop a fall-calving group in many herds. Developing a fall herd from spring-calving cows that are either later calving or diagnosed as open, but are still in good condition may yield larger returns. Moving these females back may allow producers to maintain numbers without the added cost and management considerations of replacement and first-calf heifers. Moreover, the fall herd option gets a jump-start on the revenue generation process while avoiding wintering costs on an open female.

In a statewide survey conducted by the Iowa Beef Center this spring, only 19% of cow-calf producers in Iowa have, at minimum, a proportion of their cows set to calve in the fall. While a fall-calving herd does present its own weather challenges and potentially increases wintering feed needs, there are significant benefits for operations that have a combination of spring- and fall-calving herds including: 1) an additional payday, 2) seasonal increases in feeder prices of fall-born calves, 3) potential increased weaning weights of cows that used to be late-calvers, 4) more productive months for bulls, as well as fewer bulls spread over a similar number of cows, 5) avoiding negative effects of heat stress during breeding season, and 6) better use of high quality stockpiled forage in the fall.

While developing a fall-calving herd will not be an option in all operations, it is an overlooked opportunity for many. As with any significant change in management scheme, however, be sure to consult with the team of experts you have assembled including your beef extension specialist, herd health veterinarian, and nutritionist to ensure a successful transition. Furthermore, be sure to check upcoming issues of Growing Beef for more information on benefits of and best management practices for fall-calving operations in the Midwest.


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