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Fodder for Thought

Input Costs Show Winter Calving Maybe Not That Smart

Research suggests "summer" calving has lowest input costs and pays the most money unless you retain ownership through feeding.


I have been pondering the practice of winter calving lately.

It's a common practice by many in the beef industry but winter calving can pose a challenge for producers. Blizzards and below-freezing temperatures have produced many a rancher’s story of popsicle calves and frozen ears, tails and feet.

Stories like these made me wonder, "Why do so many ranchers choose to calve at what seems to be such an unnatural and unnecessarily challenging time of the year?"

Growing up on my family’s small cow-calf operation in Pennsylvania we always timed our cows to calve in late March or in more recent years, mid to late April. In that part of the country cold temperatures and risk of bad storms were over for the most part by the time calving came around. Calves were born just as green grass was starting to come on allowing cows to have access to the early spring green flush as they were entering peak lactation.

The idea of calving in February or even earlier seems strange to me but I suppose calving in spring or summer might seem strange to those calving right now too.

So then why do so many producers calve in winter? I went to my social media networks to find out. Of the responses I received, many reasons were given:

  • Calves will be larger at weaning time in early fall making them more ideal for feeder replacements.
  • Winter-born calves can be finished before April to take advantage of stronger markets.
  • Winter-born calves will be mature in time for replacement bull and heifer sales.
  • Rebreeding can be controlled prior to cows going out to summer grazing.
  • If grazing allotments are a considerable distance away, calves will be larger and travel better.
  • Larger calves are not such vulnerable targets for predators like wolves.
  • Calving in winter does not interfere with spring planting and other farm operations.

These are all legitimate reasons and I believe that all individuals who contributed these responses wholeheartedly believe what they are doing is the best option for them. But I have to wonder, when it comes down to the bottom line, is winter calving really profitable?

The answer will vary with region, climate and ranch. But in the end, profit potential should be what makes or breaks a decision to use a particular management practice if your goal is to run a profitable enterprise. If one method is clearly more profitable than the other than it is quite obvious what should be done.

The input costs of winter calving are clearly higher when compared with calving in late spring or summer. It requires more infrastructure, more harvested feed, equipment to feed cattle, increased labor to check cows and a generally greater investment of time on the producer’s part.

The ultimate question to be answered is whether the profit earned from larger, earlier-born calves counteracts these necessary added input costs?

A Google search for some answers provided some interesting results. First was an Evaluation of Factors Related to Spring vs. Summer Calving Season. It's an analysis completed by Nadene Lemon of Fort Lewis College in August of 2003 to evaluate the four main factors related to calving season timing and use these factors to develop an optimal time for Colorado State University’s San Juan Basin Research Center to plan calving.

These four factors evaluated were:

1) labor required

2) feeding and hay costs

3) nutritional requirements according to gestation cycle

4) market trends

The analysis compared three calving-time options:

1) a March-to-April "spring" calving herd

2) a May-to-June "summer" calving herd

3) a mix of the two

From the data gathered Lemon determined that while March-to-April spring calving dates may be traditionally favored by cattlemen leading to current market peaks and troughs, they may no longer be the best management decision. More labor was required to feed and calve the spring calving group. In addition, nutrition requirements of the spring calving cows began to rise at the beginning of the winter months and peak during the middle of hay feeding season, causing these cows to require an average of 692 total pounds per animal more feed than summer-calving cattle over the same period.

The only advantage of March-to-April spring calving that Lemon could find was in the area of marketing decisions, where she found if ownership of calves was retained until slaughter, the earlier born calves would sell for $4.09/cwt more than the summer calves. If however, calves were sold as feeders, "spring" calving lost its advantage.

Lemon also found market advantages when looking at the summer-calving group. The analysis of labor requirements indicated significantly less time spent feeding and calving cattle. Even more impressive was with the reduced hay requirement of 692 pounds per animal less. This was a monetary gain of $34.60 per head, assuming hay costs were $100 per ton. With today’s market hay prices, savings would be even higher.

Lemon concluded that it would be in the university herd's best financial interest to switch all cattle to the summer calving dates, saving in labor and feed required.

In the weeks ahead I plan to delve into the calving date debate in more detail. Check back next week as I continue to examine the profitability of these two management systems and share some stories of ranchers who made the leap from winter to spring calving.

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