There is no perfect time to calve. Producers must determine what works best for environment, management skills and goals.
Whether a stockman calves in January-February (early calving), March-April (spring), May-June or June-July (summer) or September-October (fall) often hinges on climate, marketing goals, feed costs/availability, breeding season considerations, management constraints, and other factors such as type of forage base. Ultimately is should be determined by what makes the most net profit.
Jason Ahola, beef production systems specialist at Colorado State University, says although the majority of beef calves are born in late winter and early spring, meaning February through April, it does not create a uniform product.
"This calving season seems historically rooted in the need to wean in the fall, to put calves in a feedlot through winter," he says. "As corn and feed prices change, two things affect this tradition. Feedlots may differentiate between lighter and heavier calves--whether they can go straight to feed or to grass first."
Second, Ahola says, when cow-calf operations consider wintering costs such as increased hay prices, many are realizing they can’t survive on what they’ve done historically. He says they’re taking a closer look at feeding a cow during early lactation when nutritional needs are highest. Climate and how much hay you must feed during winter can be a major factor in when you decide to calve.
"I teach a beef systems class and students ask questions about calving season, like: 'If early lactation is the highest requirement, why is this occurring in February-April when there’s no grass? Why don’t we mirror wildlife, and calve later?'"
Ahola says these are legitimate questions, but the problem involves logistics. In the West, many ranchers calve in January-February because they need to get cows bred before they go to summer BLM or Forest Service range.
Calving or breeding on the range is a poor option when cows are widely scattered. Even if you calve at home and breed on the range, vast areas require more bulls. Some cows still may not get bred at the proper time, so calving is strung out. On allotments shared with other ranchers, it’s impossible to breed your cows to your own bulls for specific genetic goals, or breed heifers to bulls for easy calving. Grazing association rules on what breed or type of bulls can be turned out may not match what you want in your operation.
Ranchers usually can't change range use to different times, as those agreements have been set for decades, Ahola says. Many allotments can’t be used at other times of year because they are snow-covered. For western operations that depend on federal leases, calving seasons can’t be readily changed.
Ahola says for producers who have a choice, they can save feed costs and match calving to availability and quality of grass. They may also want to market when few other stockmen are selling cattle. Consumers eat beef every day, yet 2/3 of the calves are born in a three- to four-month window.
"Taking advantage of seasonality of calf prices can be beneficial,” Ahola says.
In some cases you have the flexibility for two calving seasons--fall and spring. On the negative side, this increases labor checking cows and maintaining more herds.
One advantage of two calving seasons is ability to retain more of the investment in heifers.
"To have some come up open the next year is a major loss," Ahola thinks. "But if you can move these into a fall calving herd, giving them more time to breed back, they don’t come up open.
"Some people argue that you’re not selecting hard enough for fertility in this type of program,” Ahola says. "But in many instances a first-calver comes up open because of management (inadequate nutrition) rather than genetics."
Further, these later calvers can always be sold as bred heifers, creating another product from the ranch.
"If you change season, this provides a one-time situation that can be both good and bad," Ahola says. "The good part is you can carry open cows longer, so that when you breed them a few months later their body condition should be better and they should all be cycling. The first calf crop in a later calving season should be very uniform; calves should all be born within the first 21 to 30 days. With timed AI, you could have 80% of your calves born within a ten-day period. But this is a one-time advantage."
If you go to later calving season, a major negative might be cash flow, making it a few months later the next year before you sell calves. Another downside for a later calving season is that summer or fall calving might not work in some climates. Summer heat may be hard on baby calves because they can dehydrate readily, and trying to have breeding season during the hottest part of the year may result in lower conception rates. Fall calving in a cold climate may be as detrimental as January-February calving; you’ll have higher winter feed costs trying to carry lactating cows through winter weather.
True summer calving
Some people move to May-June calving and still wean in November, not feeding hay to lactating cows, Ahola says. Summer-born calves on irrigated pasture or in a humid climate where pastures stay green grow more quickly than calves on dry rangelands, and will be nearly as big by November as earlier-born calves. In addition, smaller classes of calves usually fetch higher price per pound than heavier calves, reducing the advantage of "big" calves.
"In 2010 the CSU ranch went from February-March calving to May-June calving," Ahola says. "The summer-born early-weaned calves weighed 100 pounds less, but brought a high price per pound because buyers wanted lightweight calves to background. Though they were lighter, total dollar value wasn’t much less, and hay savings were tremendous. The ranch fed less than a quarter the amount of hay they fed the previous year."
Feed is a significant part of the equation regarding calving season, whether you are growing hay, buying hay, using winter pastures with minimal hay, or feeding a protein-mineral supplement and no hay.
“There are some risks in summer calving, but chances for calf-killer late winter storms disappear," Ahola says. "Death loss decreases, and percent calf crop tends to increase. Feed costs generally go down so you are less at the mercy of a volatile hay market. "
If you calve late spring/early summer you may have hot weather during breeding. This may be more of an issue in the Midwest and Southeast, but hot temperatures can reduce fertility in bulls or result in early embryo loss in cows, Ahola says.
If hot weather isn’t a factor, breeding later may enable you to share bulls with someone who calves and breeds earlier. As long as bulls are trich-tested and healthy, this is a way to cut bull costs. Most bulls work for only about 60 days of the year, Ahola says. If you and your neighbor share bulls, they could be rested a few weeks after an early breeding season and then used again. If you are using AI, breeding later can be a chance to utilize technicians when they are not as busy.
Sometimes it’s hard for a seedstock producer to change calving season, depending on when bulls are sold. If customers have been coming to buy yearling bulls in a spring sale, and then you move your calving season and bulls are only 9 months old at sale time, it won't work, Ahola says. Just like a range user, you are locked into a certain time to calve.
“You’d have to sell bulls at 18 months, or nearly 2-year-olds," he adds. "Some operations have done this, but it means more feed. Many 2-year-olds sell for about the same price as yearlings, yet you have an additional year of feed cost."
He says some seedstock operations have gone to a dual calving season. This gives customers the option of buying bulls that are older than yearlings, but not yet 2-year-olds.
"The downside of fall calving in some regions is declining forage quality," Ahola says. "Protein level drops as grasses dry out and you have to supplement with protein. It depends on where you are."
He notes in the Southeast and parts of the Midwest, cool-season grasses green up and produce quality forage in the fall when weather cools off. Fall calving may be more profitable in these areas.
"One advantage to fall calving if you can do it and carry calves into the new year and then wean, is you have a 400-500 pound calf in early April that will really bloom on grass," Ahola says. "Some people sell then, but if you can keep and sell them as yearlings, you can run fewer cows and make as much money."
Consider weaning and growing as an enterprise
If you have the skills and capacity to grow your calves bigger on forage or feed at a profitable margin, this can be another enterprise for your ranch.
Some producers who calve in summer (May-June) are wintering calves with their mothers, on winter pastures and/or bale grazing, with good results.
"The summer-grazing segment of our industry, versus cow-calf/feedlot/packer is the most consistently profitable," says Ahola. "It’s low cost, if you have grass."
Fall-calving cows create some issues for home grown stocker-backgrounder cattle. If you have harsh winters, you may have to feed fall-calving cows a lot, bed the calves and protect them from storms, Ahola says. You may get some sickness in baby calves. Producers trying this with summer-born calves (a bit older) however, report less sickness in those calves than in traditionally weaned calves.
"If you calve in May and wean in November, to keep them as yearlings you’d have to carry calves through winter for 4 to 5 months, feeding them separately," Ahola says. "One benefit of late summer or fall calving, if the calves are on the cows through winter, the herd is all together and you don’t need a different facility or feeding system. You could wean calves the next spring right onto grass,” he says.
This can even work for producers who calve in May-June, weaning calves at 10 months with minimal feeding of pairs during winter. Although the cows are past peak lactation and calves aren’t getting much milk, they seem to do very well staying on their mothers. They tend to have few health problems, and make up for low winter gains next spring on green grass.
“Fall calving probably works best in California, Texas, and the Southeast, but I know a few places in Wyoming that fall calve," Ahola says. "It’s mainly a matter of facilities, the winters, and willingness to make it work. The biggest thing you can’t manage around are summer grazing permits in much of the West."