Growing up in a family of ranchers and farmers definitely has its benefits, especially when you are starting your own farm or ranch. The wealth of wisdom and experience is invaluable. It can, however, be easy to fall into the ways of others simply because “That’s how my folks did it, so that’s how I’ll do it.” While those old ways may very well be the best, it doesn’t hurt to do a little research to see what you think would be the best way for you to do it. I’m specifically talking about when to plan for calving in a cow-calf operation. The majority of folks prefer having calves in the spring versus the fall. There are several good reasons for this and some include: the immediate availability of forage/grasses just after calving and reduced feed costs (assuming you wean and sell the calves before winter). But which method has been shown to produce the highest net profits?
After all, the ultimate goal of most cow-calf operations is to make a profit. Right now, we are faced with the decision of when to turn our bull out with our cows and heifers, so I did some research and found a study that specifically looked at which calving season resulted in the highest net profit. Ultimately, they determined that fall-born calves produced a higher net profit than spring-born calves. Here is what they took into consideration: nutritional demands, availability of forage, seasonal feed prices, seasonal cattle prices, the weight of the calf at weaning time, and calving rate.
Nutritional demands are higher and forage availability is lower for fall calving cows (resulting in overall higher feed costs). However, in areas where tall fescue is the main forage, studies have shown that fall calving programs have a higher calving rate, lower calf death rate, and higher weaning weight. Around here there is a lot of tall fescue. If your pasture consists of mostly tall fescue, you can expect growth to decline during the hot summer months (reducing forage availability for spring calves), and furthermore if your variety of tall fescue is of the endophyte-infected variety, fescue toxicosis can be a problem and may negatively impact rates of pregnancy for a spring calving program.
What about cattle and feed prices? These change with the season and overall fall-born calves marketed in the spring tend to bring higher prices than spring-born calves marketed in the fall. This is due in part to supply and demand. Because most people have spring calves and sell them in the fall, the supply of calves available for sale in the spring (those calves born in the fall) is lower. Additionally, there tends to be a higher demand to buy calves in the spring due to the anticipated increase in available forage. Feed prices were more expensive during December and January, when fall calving cows have a high nutrient demand compared to spring calving cows at that time. In addition to seasonal cattle and feed prices, calf weight is another important consideration when determining profits. In one study, they found that spring-born calves tended to have a higher birth weight as well as a higher weaning weight when compared to fall-born calves. However, in a different study, although they tended to have lower birth weights, fall-born calves actually weighed more than the spring-born calves at weaning time.
Alright, so far we have determined that based on several studies fall calving cows tend to have higher nutrient demands at a time when feed prices are more expensive and there is less available forage, and they have lower weight calves at birth and at weaning time (depending on the study). So, why would anyone have fall calves? Because a fall calving program tends to have a higher calving rate and lower calf death rate, which means more calves to sell at weaning time. Additionally, after everything is said and done, even though they cost more to feed, the net profit was higher with the fall-born calves due to the increase in market price when selling in the spring. Another great tip they discovered was that marketing fall-born calves in April resulted in higher net profits than marketing the same calves in May. If you do choose to have spring calves, the study found that marketing those spring-born calves in September was more profitable than marketing them in October.