As I write this News and Views article in December, I am reflecting back on the past year. One of the things that comes to mind, other than record high oil and feed prices, is that everything we do throughout the year has an impact on a ranch's overall profitability. One thing that directly impacts the bottom line is the time of year that your calves are born. An annual plan should be in place well before bull turnout time.
A plan for the year should include typical things such as making sure that your bulls are in adequate body condition score and have passed a breeding soundness exam well in advance of the breeding season. Additionally, make sure that you are using a bull that will excel in the traits that you want - high weaning and yearling weights, exceptional carcass or good maternal characteristics - by purchasing bulls with registration papers and EPDs to back up the claims. Finally, write dates on your calendar for bull turnout and removal from the cow herd. At most, a 90-day breeding season should be set. Smaller or highly managed herds can accomplish a shorter breeding season such as 60 to 75 days.
An easy way to decide when to set the dates for your breeding season is to start at the date that you would like to wean your calves and work backward. Having a goal for a desired weaning weight and age will help you focus and decide when the average birth date should be. A little math can help illustrate this. If you would like to have a 550-pound calf at weaning and the calf weighs 80 pounds at birth, then the calf needs to put on 470 pounds prior to weaning. If you assume that your calves will gain 2 pounds per day while on the cow, then it will take 235 days, or 7 months and 25 days, to get to the target weight. To wean your calves on Oct. 15, you would have to have an average calving date of Feb. 22 to reach the target weight with the above assumptions.
I recently watched 1,700 head of high quality, performance-bred preconditioned calves sell at Oklahoma City National Stockyards. With the new market paradigm, heavier weight calves were bringing a higher price per pound than their lighter weight contemporaries. High feed prices have forced the feedlots to shift the weight class of cattle that they are purchasing. The cost of gain for feedlot cattle has increased to the point that feedlot order buyers are now willing to pay a little more for heavier weight yearlings. In other words, the price spread between calves and yearlings has decreased. Ownership of your calves while on grass seems to be a more profitable venture than it was in the past.
So should you back up the calving date in order to be able to sell a heavier weight calf after a 45-day preconditioning period in the fall? This question is not easy to answer. Numerous factors need to be taken into account such as: what are the environmental conditions that will be prevalent during the new calving season, how much additional feed will be needed if cows are calved earlier in the winter; will continued high feed prices financially preclude you from backing up the calving season; do you anticipate a higher morbidity or mortality rate in the new calving season; will the price spread between calves and yearlings continue to narrow; and do you plan on retaining ownership after weaning or a preconditioning period?
Before moving your breeding season to an earlier date, you should visit with your Noble Research Institute livestock and agricultural economics consultants to make sure that this will fit your operation and management style.