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Calving in synch with nature

Progressive Cattleman Associate Editor Carrie Veselka Published on 24 August 2017
Foarage availability can chage from region to region

The ideal season for calving has been a hot topic for ranchers over the last several years. The traditional time of year for calving season stretches anywhere from late February to early May.

This calving schedule is mostly dictated largely by cattle markets and has spawned countless “calving-season stories” of battling blizzards, sickness and the devil himself in order to successfully bring another year’s calf crop into the world.

Another popular method is fall calving, where calving starts as early as late July and stretches through October. Some of the touted benefits of this system are the decrease in sickness, ease of calving, lower labor costs and more room in the market at weaning time.

Calving time is ultimately the producer’s choice and so varies according to individual needs and practices on their operation.

For Kit Pharo, a rancher in eastern Colorado, calving time is dictated by the herd’s nutritional needs before and after calving and the availability of forage to meet those nutritional needs. In a presentation to cattle producers at the Northwest Grazing Conference in Pendleton, Oregon, Pharo discussed the concept and workability of changing production cycles to reflect the available forage resources at that time of year.

For the western U.S., forage availability and nutritional value is low in the winter and high during the summer months, although forage availability tends to have a different timetable in different parts of the country.

Pharo said a cow going to calve in March and wean its calf in October will require a high level of nutrition during calving and the early growth period of the calf. Those nutrition requirements will decline as the calf’s dependence on the cow’s milk declines.

“What I want to do is match what my cows need to eat with my ranch’s resources,” he said. “My ranch, at the point when this cow is calving in March, is not producing enough to meet her needs. I’ve got to artificially fill in that gap, and it’s going to take money to do it.”

Pharo said the natural cycle of grass should have a more powerful voice in deciding the calving schedule. He uses wildlife reproduction cycles as an example. “Have you ever wondered why wild animals don’t have their babies in February and March? It so happens they shouldn’t.” He said wildlife throughout North America like deer and elk have their babies anywhere from April to June.

Pharo said producers often mistakenly think the farther south they go, the earlier they can calve. “In Chihuahua and parts of northern Texas and Arizona, it’s dependent on the monsoons,” he said. “The toughest months are March, April, May and June before the rains start coming.”

Pharo compares the March-calving cow with one calving in late May. The May cow’s nutritional needs are roughly the same – high around calving and gradually declining until weaning.

But instead of hitting the high forage availability and quality window months after the cow has had its calf and the cow’s nutritional needs have already started to decline, nutritional needs – high, right after calving – are matched by high forage availability and nutritional value instead of being supplemented with hay or other feed provided by the producer.

“That difference, in my part of the world, could mean $80 to $100 in savings per cow,” Pharo said. “Benjamin Franklin said, ‘A penny saved is a penny earned.’ The easiest money we’re going to make in this business is the money we don’t spend.”

Pharo used a neighboring ranch in eastern Colorado as an example. The owners decided to change from March calving to May calving to see what would happen. He said the first change they saw was a decrease in labor and feed expenses by 70 percent. “You can’t calve in eastern Colorado without feeding hay, which takes time and labor plus the expense of the feed. Changing to May calving would eliminate that need.”

Another improvement they noticed was having 90 percent of their calves born in the first 30 days of their calving season. “You can’t do that when you’re calving in March, no matter how much hay you feed,” Pharo said. The individual weaning weights of the May calves were lower than the March calves but, thanks to a low calf mortality rate, as a herd, they produced more total pounds than the March-calving herd.

“Even though the individual weaning weights are smaller, they are producing more total pounds with smaller calves. And how can you do that?” he asks. “More live ones. Dead calves have distressingly low weaning weights.”  end mark

PHOTO: Since forage availability can change from region to region, the right time for calving season is best left up to the individual producer. Photo by Carrie Veselka.

Carrie Veselka
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