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Management decisions for fall-calving beef herds

Cattle grazing on pasture
Fall calving herds are gearing up for the next breeding season

As producers with spring calving herds are completing weaning and moving cows to winter range, fall calving herds are gearing up for the next breeding season.

Whether you already have a fall-calving cow herd or want to start one, South Dakota State University Cow/Calf specialist Taylor Grussing says keeping open cows and breeding them for fall calves is an alternative to liquidating some females that may still have their most productive years ahead of them.

Related: Producers should have a plan as beef prices fall

Grussing shares the details in a recent SDSU blog entry, "Fall calving cows: management and breeding decisions." Grussing says:

Fall calving herds are gearing up for the next breeding season.

Not all open females should be kept around for a fall herd, but young cows (3-5 years old) with good feet and legs, udders, eyes and body condition scores are the best candidates compared to heifers or old cows. Heifers that did not get bred are likely genetically less fertile and older cows are past their lifetime productive years and will return little value.

In addition to age, additional management factors need also be analyzed when choosing which open females to keep. Some females may be very fertile but perhaps bull power was inadequate in the pasture or a bull went bad during the breeding season and wasn't replaced. Regardless of which ones and how many you keep, fall calving cows require additional management at different times of year than spring calving herds.

About fall calving
First off, a loose definition of a fall calving cow herd would include breeding cows between November and February and calving them from August to November. Depending on the type of operation, a fall herd may fit in well with available resources or provide another enterprise to the operation allowing another family member to return home. In the Midwest, this means calving cows during harvest and breeding them in the cold of winter, potentially requiring more labor for proper management. Furthermore, feeding fall calving cows may increase winter feed costs as cows are in peak lactation when summer forages go dormant and energy and protein supplementation may be necessary to support her maintenance and lactation nutritional demands.

Related: 10 ways to cut cattle feeding costs

Still, there are some great rewards to adding a fall calving enterprise to an operation that may make up for added labor and feed costs. These include calving on pasture and not fighting mud. Moreover, the weather is more predictable, and temperature is mild before the snow starts falling. Fall born calves also provide producers with another calf crop to market and bring in additional revenue during the spring herds off season.


Choosing a breeding program
Choosing a breeding program for the fall cow herd can be evaluated similar to spring herds. Options include choosing natural service, estrous synchronization and artificial insemination or synchronization with natural service. These breeding options range from requiring minimal labor (turning out the bull) to following detailed protocols outlined by the Beef Reproductive Task Force.

No matter which breeding protocol you choose, placing a bull in the pasture will help reduce bull costs by spreading his use out over two breeding seasons. Remember to only use bulls that pass a breeding soundness exam and are in adequate body condition score to ensure optimum performance. Lastly, the length of the fall breeding season needs to be defined, as it is crucial to being profitable in an operation. Compared to year round calving, a defined calving interval will allow producers to be more profitable as seen by a more uniform calf crop. Recommendations of 45 – 60 days will allow 2 – 3 chances for each cow to become pregnant. Cows that do not get bred should be sold to reduce feed expenses.

Read the full report: Fall Calving Cows: Management and Breeding Decisions

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