Calving Season – What works for your operation?

Everyone has a different calving season. Some have none at all. Some folks begin Spring calving in January, others wait until March or even May. Then you have Fall calving season that can begin in September or October. With so much difference, what’s the right answer for everyone? There isn’t one! And if someone tells you they know the calving season everyone should have, feel free to call B.S.

I  grew up on an operation when calving season for 1,200 head of cows ran February 15 to ~April 15th or May 1. By the time we got to the end of April, many of those cows would end up culling themselves as later breeders or open cows. I’ve turned out bulls in early January for Fall calving (for those of you still counting on your fingers, cows have a ~9 month gestation on average, similar to humans). I’ve also worked on operations where it was important that calves be old enough to trail out to mountain grazing pastures by the time forages were growing enough on BLM and USFS allotments.

Managing the breeding season of your cow herd, whether you have 12 or 1,200, is an important part to being able to manage the nutritional needs for your cowherd, managing those feed costs (which can be the majority of annual cow cost), and being able to market your calves or manage the replacements you retain. As simple of a choice as some may want it to be, there is no one-size-fits-all in this situation and I’ve seen a few individuals who wish to be opponents of the “status quo”, be pretty aggressive in their preaching and downcast those who dare to disagree with their opinions.

However, I can tell you that “Because we’ve always done it this way” is not a very well thought out response. Not saying that your current management is wrong, but it does deserve a little more consideration than that.

So what is the right calving season for you?

Where I grew up in Arkansas, it was important to have calves early enough so that cows could be rebred before summer heat and humidity took a huge toll on fertility and successful pregnancy rates. This meant having calves in February and having to deal with a handful of winter weather events during early calving. In Montana, many ranchers need their calves old enough to trail out to summer pastures due to a limited window for grazing season. These producers may also have to consider that grazing areas are far from facilities or access to roads should cows need assistance with calving. Then there are predators like cats, wolves, or bears to consider. You have farmers who have livestock along with crops and often these folks need to wrap up calving season before spring planting. Or you might have folks in areas/situations where weather and forage supply make every bit of sense to wait until May for calving. The point is, every situation is different.

So what are the factors to consider when planning a window for your calving season? Not in any particular order:

  • When is forage available to feed cows at the maximal nutrient requirement period (post calving to peak lactation)?
  • How does the environment influence accessibility of cow herd during calving when/if assistance is needed? How can that be managed?
  • How does calving window influence labor/facility costs?
  • Does weather/nutrient supply influence fertility and ability to have a successful breeding season?
  • When does the calf crop need to be marketed? (Is there an ability to retain and stocker calves to manage this marketing window despite calving season?)

These are just the start of several questions that can be asked when considering the calving season suitable for your operation. What addition questions can you add to this list? What calving season is right for your situation?

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  1. There is no right or wrong time to calve. I flew from central Nebraska to Northern Maine a couple weeks ago to visit with cow calf producers on genetic selection and heifer development. I was lucky enough to get to visit 1 farmers operation and get a little more insight on raising calves in Northen Maine. What works for us on the prairie in terms of wintering cows grazing field residues most of the winter would not work there at all due to the large amount of snow fall. I find it dishearting when I read negative comments from beef producers to other beef producers about how they are “doing it wrong”. There is so much diversity in environment, available feed, length of growing seasons, as you move from one part of the country to another and what works in Nebraska may not work in Maine or Texas. Then you throw in available labor, other crops/livetock on a particular farm, timing of hay season, pasture distance from the ranch, markets and many other factors and you create an industry with large variation on “how to raise beef”. This variation gives the beef industy a diversity so that we can raise beef in any part of the US (The Forest of Northern Maine, the Sandhills of Nebraska, the Mountains in Colorado, the Deserts of Arizona) and a unique beauty that sets us apart from other industries. I really believe that we need to stop bashing each other on how we each raise beef (timing of calving, grass finished vs grain finished, implanted vs non implanted) and learn to appreciate the uniqueness we all bring to the table while imbracing the fact that we as an industry have the ability to put a large diversity of safe and healthy beef products on the shelves for our customers.
    We start calving in mid Feb (heifers) and March 1. Yes we can have some bitter cold temps in Feb that makes it tougher on calves but we have a barn to get them in and a “calf warming station” set up in the garage to give extra care to new borns. Summer pastures are 50 miles from the main ranch and in order to get pairs to grass around May 1 we need to be nearing the end of calving in late April. Other wise we loose out on pasture we paid rent on. As calving season is winding down our farming and haying tasks are picking up. We have set our calving date to match our resources and because of that we loose very few calves.

  2. We ranch at an elevation of 7200 feet, with pretty severe winters. We use to calve heifers in February, but due to a family tragedy we found ourselves in a labor shortage. We slowly have moved our calving to mid-April for heifers and May 1 for cows. We have reduced our feed costs by over $10,000 per year, along with fuel, labor, and the cost to our sanity! We end up weaning late October or November (when we aren’t in a severe drought), but this has not hurt our marketing of calves in any way. We still get great prices for steer calves, and we retain and feed our heifers to finish. For us, we are reducing loss to weather events, and making sure that our cows are best able to utilize forage to match their needs. We are fortunate to not have to trail baby calves too far to summer grazing, though.

  3. We start calving our heifers the end of January. They have a 33 day breeding season. The cows start February 3. They have a 63 day breeding season. So our heifers are done calving as of last Saturday. Its fast and furious, but done. We feed alfalpha for a few months or due to weather conditions. We start branding in mid April when the grass is up and growing. We turn bulls out on April 22/23. And wean our steers right off mama onto the truck. Same with our feeder heifers. Our keeping heifers we leave with mama until December. All our cows, bulls and calves stay on the ranch. We are fortunate that we don’t have to trail them anywhere.

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