Assisting a cow with her calf is much nicer when the weather is pleasant — and matching calving season with the onset of green grass makes you more money, too.
“When you can line up that reproductive cycle with the grass production cycle, that’s huge,” said Jim Bauer, an Acme-area rancher and former manager of the Grey Wooded Forage Association.
“That knocks a lot of dollars off and a lot of work out of keeping a cow for a year.”
While he can’t put an exact dollar figure on the benefits of calving in spring, the savings are “a lot.”
The biggest factor is the energy requirements for cows in their last trimester. For a cow calving in February, her energy requirements start to increase in November (when she is coming off grass) and then steadily increase at six weeks prior to calving.
“That corresponds with the start of the shortest day length and the coldest weather of the year,” Bauer noted.
But for a cow calving in May, the need for more energy begins “when the days are lengthening and temperatures begin to moderate.”
The benefits of later calving are even greater for cows needing to gain weight.
“If the February-calving cow needs to gain weight prior to calving, she must be fed in excess of her maintenance and gestation requirement during the coldest time of the year,” said Bauer.
Using stockpiled grass in late March and into April as the grass is greening up is a “cheap” way for the May-calving cow to gain weight and improve her body condition score.
Once that cow has calved, her energy requirements continue to climb as she lactates and recovers from calving, hitting her peak energy requirement at 60 days post-calving. A cow calving in cold weather needs 40 to 60 per cent more energy per day than a non-lactating one. That number drops by roughly half if the weather is warmer.
Bauer not only appreciates the drop in feed requirements, but also the quality of feed he can offer new moms in spring.
“We can never make hay as good as we can supply grass in the end of May, June, early-July pastures,” he said.
Spring calving is also good for the cows’ owner.
“There will be a high labour cost associated with calving due to cold weather,” said Bauer. “More time and effort spent checking and moving cows and calves in and out of shelter.”
Bauer sums up his experience calving in March as “sloppy, cold, wet, miserable, and scours.”
“Instinctively, I knew it was a bad idea,” he said with a laugh.
Mother Nature can still deliver wintery blows during spring calving but the herd is likely calving on stockpiled grass, making a nice bed for newborns.
“Well-planned calving areas could include natural shelter from bush and the use of portable or permanent windbreaks.”
So with all the savings of spring calving why are producers still calving in the winter?
Bauer puts it down to a combination of tradition and not taking time to assess the financial benefits.
“I’d rather be outside than doing anything in the office,” he said. “Agriculture has had a bit of a reputation where we’re not really very good with our books and knowing where our money is generated or saved. We fly by the seat of our pants a lot, me included.”
Bauer is seeing a change — albeit a slow one.
“There has been quite a shift, but there’s still plenty of cows still calved in March, even February herds.”
Many who continue to winter calve have mixed farms and “want to get the calving done before seeding hits.”
As well, producers who don’t have a lot of pasture around their home farm and haul their cows to summer pasture prefer an older calf. They also prefer that bigger calf to sell in the fall.
“If I calve in May rather than March, there’s a couple of months there and my calf is going to be smaller when I sell it on the first of November.” But I haven’t found that personally to be true, that there’s that big of a difference.”
Bauer said he’s seen research that April and May calves will outgain ones born in February or March.
He used to keep his calves over the winter, background them, and market them the following year (while keeping his own heifers for replacements).
“We would sell some this time of year to hit that hot grasser market or we would take them to 900 pounds on our steers.”
But he’s since discovered, “we actually have lots of market options.”
“We can sell calves in the fall, or partially background and play the market. Or if they get really hot this time of year for the weights that fit for grassers, we can find an easy makeup for feeding that calf in the winter. In our own experience, when we grew our steers out, they sold very well off grass in the fall at 900 pounds.”
The biggest challenge is shifting your thinking and realizing that reproduction and grazing were designed for each other, he said.
“By calving in the spring versus in the cold-weather months it’s going to be cheaper. If you can grasp that concept and work with it, you can save a lot.”