The severe weather of this past winter and spring has prompted many cow-calf producers in Nebraska to evaluate the potential of moving their calving date to a different time of year. Here are 10 things producers may want to consider as they evaluate moving of a calving date.
1. How would the proposed move match cow nutrient requirements with the quantity and quality of available feed resources? Grazed feed is most often less expensive than harvested feed to get into the belly of a cow. Moving calving to a time of year that allows for greater use of grazed versus harvested feed can be an advantage economically for feeding the cow herd.
The type of cow you have in one season of calving may not fit another season, however, because of forage quality and nutrient requirements. Moving the calving date may decrease supplementation or feeding at certain physiological states, but at the same time increase resource needs at other periods of the year.
2. How would the move affect the quality of feed that is grazed or fed specifically in the window of time from calving through breeding? Cow-calf producers considering a move to calving in later spring, which will result in cows breeding on pasture or range in late summer, will want to evaluate the potential effect of this change on reproduction. Forage quality on pasture and range tends to peak in late May and June and then decline from July into fall. Nutrient requirements are the highest at peak lactation, which occurs on average right before the start of breeding.
The change in forage quality with higher nutrient requirements can affect reproduction. First-calf heifers and young cows that still are growing may be challenged nutritionally to have adequate protein and energy to achieve acceptable pregnancy rates when on a decreasing plane of nutrition in the period before and through the breeding season. Strategic supplementation may be needed right before and through the breeding season to help meet nutrient needs and achieve acceptable pregnancy rates, especially in higher-risk females.
3. What is the expected effect of the change in timing of calving to when weaning occurs and calf weaning weight? Changing calving dates likely will change the time of year when calves are weaned and change weaning weights. Nutritional needs of weaned calves and how they are managed after weaning may need to be adjusted significantly based on the age of the calf at weaning and available feed resources.
4. How will the move affect marketing of calves and market timing? Changing time of calving may significantly affect the value and weight of calves at weaning based on market seasonality and demands. Examine the expected value of weaned calves in the proposed production system compared with the current system.
Will the proposed change in calving result in a calf that would better fit a wintering program and then being marketed as a yearling? Changing time of calving may also affect when nonpregnant animals are sold. Historically, cull cow markets tend to hit annual lows in fall and increase from fall into spring.
5. What will be the effect of a change in calving to selection and development of replacement heifers? The genetics that performed acceptably under an early-spring calving season with harvested feed may not perform reproductively the same in a later calving season. A change in genetics may be needed to have cows that are adapted to a more limited input production system that can successfully breed in late summer on pasture that is declining in quality. Evaluate whether the genetic change should occur through selection internally, or by selling the existing herd and purchasing genetics more adapted to the calving season you are considering.
For cow-calf producers raising their own replacement heifers, later-spring calving may provide an opportunity for heifers to be developed on lower-quality forages such as crop residue or native range through winter with minimal supplement. These heifers then can be nutritionally "flushed" on higher-quality pasture in the spring before breeding. This method of development can reduce replacement heifer development feed costs compared with systems that use significant amounts of harvested feed.
6. How would the change in calving date affect the need for labor and equipment? According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, the average age of farmers and ranchers is 57.5 years old — an increase of 1.2 years from the 2012 Census of Agriculture. Labor and equipment needs can vary significantly based on the season of the year when calving occurs.
7. What will changing the calving date do to cowherd value? In Nebraska, there tend to be differences in value for bred cows of the same age and quality based on the time of year they calve. If a person has a group of cows in a more highly desired calving season, moving these cows to a different time of year may reduce their market value.
8. What opportunities would a change in calving season provide to collaborate with other producers? Most "spring" calving cows in Nebraska calve in February through April. Calving at a time outside of this window may provide an opportunity to source later-calving females from other herds that could be used in a terminal sire system and simplify the operation. Sharing bulls with a trusted producer who calves in a different time of year could be another way to reduce breeding expenses.
9. How will a change in calving affect logistics for the overall operation? For diversified crop and livestock operations, changing calving date to a time of year when farming enterprises require more focus may present labor challenges. Also, for many cow-calf operations, summer pasture is rented, and is at times a significant distance from calving locations. Moving young calves to pasture a long distance from calving can present management challenges compared with moving older calves.
10. Who do you know that has made the move you are considering? Visiting with someone who has "been there and done that" can bring perspective and help identify issues or challenges that haven't been considered. It also may provide insights into how those challenges can be overcome.
Changing calving date is a big choice that can have ripple effects for the entire operation. It's important to use a systems approach in evaluating the potential effects of a change in calving date. There is no "perfect" time of year to calve in Nebraska. Thoroughly understanding the potential positives and negatives of making this change is important when making the decision.
Numerous long-term research studies by the University of Nebraska have compared different calving dates and production systems. For information on how different calving times and systems compare, visit beef.unl.edu. The articles and Beef Cattle Reports provide research that can be helpful in evaluating calving season options.
Berger is a Nebraska Extension beef educator.