The South Dakota Grassland Coalition and South Dakota State University Extension Service held workshops in 2019 about changing beef cow calving dates to be more in sync with nature. See previous reporting "4 reasons to calve 'with nature' in late spring, early summer" to learn more.
During those workshops, farmers and ranchers shared their experience on how to go about changing calving dates. Some of their top tips were:
1. Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate. No move should be made without a comprehensive game plan that considers several factors. All participants recommended working with a coach or trusted mentor and all reiterated the need to work with their financial advisor or lender to create an appropriate financial plan.
2. Decide whether to move fast or slow. Some recommend moving slowly toward a later date, say a week or two at a time, while others recommended making the move toward a new date all at once.
The key to the decision of moving quickly or slowly ultimately depends on what type of resources are available and how well one can handle the fall-out of animals that might not fit the new program. Again, working with a local coach or mentor who has successfully transitioned to a later calving date is recommended.
3. Consider infrastructure, human, land and financial resources. While later calving tends to remove the pressures on most resources, it is still critical to evaluate resources within individual farm or ranch situations.
One of the most important resource assessments to consider is the overall management of the breeding program and the ability to house bulls longer in the summer prior to breeding. Some recommended that a creative solution to bull management was to share bulls with another producer who breeds earlier.
4. Figure out what kind of cows you need. Today’s cows are built bigger and designed to milk heavier. March calving cows, if switched to a later date, may have issues with overproduction of milk.
These cows may not fit your long-term strategies, so a management plan for heavy milking cows may be needed. This is a complex topic that cannot be fully addressed here. Again, seek out coaching on the type of cow to retain, purchase or develop that is best suited to your environment and situation.
5. Plan marketing. Transitioning calving dates invariably means some cows, heifers or bulls will not fit well with the new program. Most producers who have switched have realized these were ultimately the most expensive and highest maintenance animals in the herd anyway.
A culling and marketing strategy is key and should be consistent with overall ranch plans or drought plans. As one producer stated, culled livestock always have value. The key is to maximize that value by timing it with the market
Bauman is an SDSU Extension range field specialist.