Weather and markets - those two subjects offer tremendous conversation potential for cow-calf ranchers. We spend lots of energy and time providing point and counter-point about these subjects. Unfortunately, all of our debate does very little good. In fact, we can't do a thing about these issues - they are out of our control. While it might be fun to discuss them, concentrating on issues we can manage may prove more beneficial in making our operations achieve the goals we have set.
We have complete control over our management and when we buy and sell animals (well, maybe the banker has partial control over that). Focus on things you can control. For a cow-calf producer, a big aspect of the operation that you control is when cows have their calves. It can have a tremendous influence on the profitability of your operation. There are three main questions to answer in relation to calving times:
Choosing a time of the year to calve is the first major decision. Early spring (February-March) is the most popular time of year to calve in the Foundation's service area. February-born calves are typically older and heavier when weaned in October than calves born later in the spring. Are there problems with early spring calving? Every calving season has advantages and disadvantages. One disadvantage to early spring calving is that calves are born and cows must start lactating while still in the hay-feeding season.
Fall calving (September-October) is another option that seems to be gaining popularity. Advantages are numerous, including less calving difficulty, reduced calf death loss and higher calf prices in the spring. A big potential disadvantage of fall calving is that this type of herd requires either more feed or better management than a spring calving herd. A big factor in determining an appropriate calving season is your forage base as it will dictate the amount of purchased supplements required for your cow herd. Also consider seasonality of markets, labor requirements and weather patterns at critical times such as calving, breeding and weaning.
The length of the calving season is an important decision. Producers use a long calving season (120 days or more) to try to achieve maximum conception rates, which is a worthy goal. Short calving seasons (90 days or less) allow producers to implement more management techniques, such as a more detailed health program, a customized nutrition program, strategic marketing of larger, uniform calf crops, concentration of labor, etc. What is the balance? It is probably different for everybody, but research in Nebraska concluded that a 70-day calving season struck the balance better than either a 45-day or a 120-day calving season. A cow's estrus cycle is 21 days long, so each cow should get three opportunities to conceive a calf in a 65-70 day breeding season. If the cow is in good body condition and cycling at the beginning of the breeding season, it would seem the chances are low for her to conceive on her fourth or fifth estrus cycle after she missed three in a row. If she is not in good body condition at the beginning of the breeding season, either the management needs to be adjusted or the cow needs to be culled. Neither of those options necessitates lengthening the breeding season.
How do you get there?
Changing calving seasons can be a tricky proposition. One must realize the fact that moving cows up (ex. from April to March calving) is very slow. We typically have a hard enough time getting cows to calve every 12 months, much less every 11 months. Conversely, moving cows back (from spring to fall calving) is very expensive when "down" time is taken into account. Options for moving your herd include buying/breeding heifers for the season you would like to convert to. Over time, your herd will gradually switch to the desired season. This will necessitate two calving seasons for most producers, which might not be a bad thing anyway. Dual calving seasons can reduce bull costs and spread marketing risk and labor, but they also increase the management requirement.
Strategically consider if your current calving season is the best option for you. It may well be, but a simple change in this area could result in a significant increase in the amount of money that winds up in your back pocket.