Calving in the snow, in late April, in Madison County. Photo by Quinton Keeran.

A look at fall calving

By Garth Ruff, Beef Cattle Field Specialist, OSU Extension

Fall is my favorite time of the year, hay making is done, the feeder cattle are being marketed, college football is in full swing, and for some calving season is well underway.

This summer at our field day in Muskingum County we heard from a family who discussed incorporating a fall calving cow herd into their beef operation. While there are disadvantages to fall calving, there are several advantages that can be capitalized on if we can evaluate and adapt current production systems. Let’s look at how fall calving can be a viable and profitable system.

Cattle prices are seasonal 

As with most things in agriculture, supply and demand have a great impact on prices. Andrew Griffith from the University of Tennessee in 2017 analyzed several studies comparing spring and fall calving systems. After comparing the systems on a 205-day weaning age and two separate feed resource scenarios they concluded that even though spring-calving cows had heavier calves at weaning and lower feed costs than the fall-calving cows, the higher prices of steer and heifer calves captured by fall-born calves were able to cover the higher feed expenses and lighter weaning weights by the fall-born calves.

In the fall of the year, when most of the weaned spring-born calves are marketed, supply is plentiful for order buyers to fill their feedlot orders. This increased supply contributes to our annual average low in feeder cattle prices.

During the spring when there is demand for stocker calves to graze both in the plains, south, and grass here locally, prices on a per hundredweight (cwt) basis are significantly higher due to a tighter supply of calves. That smaller supply of fall born calves contributes to seasonality of the markets and our annual high for stocker cattle.

Don’t forget that the cull markets are seasonal as well. Griffiths also looked at Tennessee cull cow prices from 1990-2013 demonstrated that fall calving culls sold in April and May were valued on average $8 to $9 cwt higher than spring calving culls sold in September or October.

And then there is the mud. As rainfall patterns shift here in Ohio and the rest of the Eastern Corn Belt, indications are that our springs are going to be warmer and wetter over time. I think we can attest to that if recent memory serves us well.

Mud

Mud becomes more of an issue in the last trimester of gestation for a beef cow. Research conducted at the Ohio State University Eastern Ag Research Station suggests that a cow in muddy conditions requires an additional 1.8 Mcal Net Energy per day or 2.5 pounds of corn to maintain adequate body condition as demonstrated by Kirsten Nickles.

Not only does mud have an impact on cow body condition, management and feeding also become a challenge when excessive muddy conditions persist. Fall calving in September to mid-October, when soil conditions are, on average drier, can be one method to reduce the impacts of mud on cow performance.

Management considerations 

Historically, one of the biggest drawbacks to fall calving has been the increased cost to feed and maintain a lactating cow over winter. As acknowledged previously, that feed cost can be in most years offset by higher calf values in the spring of the year.

In the past couple of years, hay quality and quantity has been a limiting factor for some cattlemen. If forage is at a premium and cow condition is being compromised with fall calving cows, why not consider reducing the caloric needs of the cow by ending lactation around 120 days of age?

In addition to improving management of available forage. We can also better manage calf performance once they are weaned. Weaned calves can be fed a grower ration until marketing later in the spring. In an early weaning system, there is a transfer in feed cost from the cow to the calf. Do not over feed early weaned calves. The goal is to have calves that are healthy, “green” and not over conditioned when turned out to graze. Whether or not higher spring calf values will offset higher calf nutrition and management costs is something to think about given current feed costs.

Final thoughts 

Having a defined calving season is better than none at all. What works in other parts of the country may or may not work for your herd, however it always good to evaluate various management systems and current on-farm practices.

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