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Fodder for Thought

Studies Say High Input Costs Hurt Winter Calving Profitability

Analysis showed bigger, winter calves couldn't outrun the effects of bigger feed bills for cows.


Last week I began a discussion about cow-calf profitability and how the high cost of inputs may not make winter calving the ideal situation anymore.

Late-spring or early summer calving may offer more economically viable choices.

Bringing strength to this case is a three-year study from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UN-L) comparing the effects of summer calving (mid-June to mid-August) to that of traditional spring calving (March to April) in the Nebraska Sandhills. The full report is available here.

An analysis of herds participating in the Nebraska Integrated Resource Management (IRM) project indicated feed costs were the largest total cost of cow-calf producers. In order to evaluate ways of reducing these costs, researchers compared the production traits of spring and summer calving herds, including birth and weaning weights and hay and supplemental inputs.

The study was conducted in at UN-L’s Gudmundsen Sandhills Laboratory from 1994-1996 comparing two herds: 1) a 150-head summer-calving herd , and 2) a 400-head spring-calving herd. Both herds were based on MARC II composite breeding ( ¼ Angus, ¼ Hereford, ¼ Simmental, ¼ Gelbvieh).

Results of the study brought to light some interesting observations. While weaning weights for later born calves were lower, as would be expected when compared to calves born earlier in the year, birth weights for summer born calves were higher. However, even with these higher birth weights, less dystocias were observed in the summer calving herd and summer calving cows were not checked as frequently as the earlier "spring" calving herd.

Previous economic analyses of wintering systems for Sandhills cow herds conducted by UN-L indicated management strategies that included maximizing winter grazing while reducing hay feeding resulted in the highest profitability potential for ranchers.

The results from the UN-L's 3-year study give clout to this observation, showing that by switching to summer calving, annual feed requirements were reduced by a whopping 1.5 tons of hay per cow per year.

In addition, while summer-born calves were slightly lighter than their earlier born counterparts by about 35 pounds, the tremendous cost savings from reduced hay and labor costs may offset the loss in weaning weight from calving later in the year.

Researchers noted that January calf prices for the relevant weight of calves tend to be higher compared with October prices. Only an 8% increase in calf prices in January from that of October was needed to generate equal gross income to that of the spring-calving herd.

In addition, the researchers indicated that over a 10-year period from 1986-1995, calf prices ran an average of 7.8% higher in January compared with October, proving that the myth of lower calf prices for summer calves during this time period does not hold water.

In an additional but unrelated study examining five alternative calving month scenarios (February through June) in a mixed integer programming model June proved the best month. This study sought to minimize the costs of providing energy and protein to a mature cow and the researchers found under average weather conditions in Wyoming, June was the lowest feed cost calving month. It provided an annual reduction in feed costs of $43/head over February calving.

So what does this all mean? Well, after looking at the aforementioned studies discussed this week and last I have come to one conclusion:  When it comes down to economic efficiency and the bottom line, winter calving is not profitable.

The decreased feed and labor needs, the impressive cost savings from reduced hay feeding, and the historical price differential of similar gross incomes generated from spring-and summer-born calves makes the later-born calving system the most profitable in this comparison.

Note however, this discussion does not take fall calving into consideration.

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