Calving seasons of the mind

by Justin Sexten, Ph.D.

Winter came early for much of cow-calf country, and now calving season is at the gate. Even those who call it “spring calving” often start in January, but if you’re not out checking a heifer, this is a good time of year to catch up on reading. Calving dates and “housing” options for the herd were explored in a 2019 Nebraska Beef Report article by Terry Klopfenstein and others, who evaluated March, June, or August calving dates on the range, or two July calving systems in year-round confinement or in semi-confinement with grazed corn stalks from fall to April weaning. Even if none of these models fit your operation, the production and cost principles they illustrate can help develop a system that does match your resources.

Confinement for beef cows ranges from enclosed buildings to a more extensive dry-lot model, with greatly varying costs based on capital investments. Confinement in an open dry lot costs less, but if you have to deal with inclement weather, heat, cold, rain or snow, the added shelter may be worth the added investment.

Either of the confinement options could also make sense where expansion on range or pasture is limited by land availability. Confinement models can increase ranch stocking rates by using use forage resources more efficiently, with options for strategic supplementation and preventing overgrazing.

The top concern for any herd management system may be how flexible or rigid it is in setting the calving season. That window determines the year-round nutrient demand curve for the entire herd, along with seasonal price risks for ranch inputs and cattle markets.

In confinement housing, the main benefit is a ranch “environment” that becomes significantly more manageable. Cow herd nutrition options are much more flexible than the pasture under their feet. In the semi-confinement model the Nebraska team evaluated, grazed corn stalks reduced winter feed costs while capitalizing on seasonally low harvested feed costs during the confined spring and summer. There was nearly $100 net difference per calf between the two systems, total confinement with a $46.57 loss compared to a $51.92 net gain for calves in the semi-confined model.

Comparing returns to different calving dates among all five systems, March netted the lowest cost per calf and June, the highest. But unit cost of production was the key lesson in this data. Despite the greatest total cost, June calving provided the lowest unit cost of production and greatest net profit per calf, thanks to greater weaning and carcass weights. Simply driving down costs did not directly equate to increased profit.

What did equate to more profit deserves a closer look. Higher weaning weights came from weaning later than the traditional seven months—and the data shows cow performance was not compromised by longer lactation. In that light, those with fall-calving herds on cool-season pastures might consider delayed weaning into June to help manage spring growth and add weight to calves. You might worry that will hurt reproductive performance, but cows are already bred or not when you decide to keep calves on the cow longer. Body condition score (BCS) of a cow at calving is a far greater indicator of reproductive success than BCS at weaning. That’s a reminder to those with March-calving herds: now is the time to ensure cows have adequate nutrition to rebreed next year.

We might think that a pasture system calving in concert with natural forage production (June in Nebraska) is always more profitable than a semi-confined model with a comparable calving date. Not in this study. Semi-confinement netted $7.15 more per calf, over and above the $44.77 net return to June calving on range. Is that extra 13.7% profit worth a wholesale change and potential loss of pasture leases? Maybe, if you want to expand without adding land.

The Nebraska study didn’t consider seasonal price variation of inputs or cattle, though we know those trends can be strong and variable by region and impact on each ranch. While the five-system evaluation did capture the value of reduced costs in using corn stalk grazing, it muted seasonal marketing advantages by using fixed historical market prices for calves. Feed and forage input costs were also fixed—costs that are often stacked against confinement models. But all of us sometimes forget to consider variation in forage production for grazing models. Look out the window and we realize nature can give or take a lot from average, but we tolerate that risk as less troublesome than trying to manage feed prices.

Calving dates and management systems are hard to change on a dime, but it pays to keep alternatives in mind as a hedge against a possible future that calls for change.