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Weighing the healthy value of fall calving

Chris Thomsen for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 July 2020

For most cow-calf producers, fall typically means weaning the calf crop. Yet for many producers, it also means fall calving. According to the USDA-NASS Cattle Inventory report, approximately 27% of calves were born during the second half of 2019.

There can be economic advantages to calving part or all of your cows during the fall season. With fewer calves on the market, fall calves typically command a higher price. Depending on where you live, there also might be less risk associated with fall calving. Using simulation models based on 19 years of data, University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture researchers determined that the fall calving season – between mid-September and mid-November – was most profitable and had the smallest amount of variation in profits.

If you calve in the fall, the following are important to having a successful calf crop:

1. Get the most out of your herd bulls. Many fall-calving producers like the fact that they can spread their bull power over two breeding seasons. Remember to have bulls checked for breeding soundness, be sure they are current on their vaccinations and that they have adequate body condition score.

2. Define your calving window. Using an established calving window is important to improving calf crop uniformity and production efficiency for either fall or spring calving. In addition, the more calves born during that first 21-day period of the calving window, the more pounds of calves you’ll have to sell later.

Records collected over several years at Gudmundsen Sandhills Laboratory in Whitman, Nebraska, showed the benefits to both steers and heifers. Male calves born during the first 21 days of the calving season had greater carcass weights, marbling scores and yield grade than later-born calves.

Heifers born during the first 21 days had greater weaning, pre-breeding and pre-calving weights; greater percent cycling before breeding and better pregnancy rates compared to later-born heifers. First-calf progeny also had earlier birth dates and greater weaning weights.

3. Use a synchronization program. This will increase early calving frequency in your calving window. Synchronization is not just for those using artificial insemination. One way to incorporate natural-service synchronization is to administer a prostaglandin approximately five days after bull turn-in. A University of Nebraska study found a single injection of prostaglandin administered approximately 108 hours after bull turn-in increased the percentage of cows calving in the first 21 days without affecting pregnancy rates.

The prostaglandin will help synchronize cows that were not bred the first five days, and it does not harm the ones bred during the first five days.

4. Anticipate adequate feed, mineral and forage availability. Covering the increased cost of the nutritional needs often is the biggest consideration when determining if fall calving is the right fit for an operation.

The postpartum period – 80 to 90 days post-calving – requires the greatest nutritional demand. The lactating and pregnant cow period is 120 to 130 days and is when cows reach peak lactation and then decrease milk production. For fall calving, this peak in lactation typically occurs during the winter season, when pastures in many places are dormant. Nutritional requirements are still high, but energy requirements decrease about 13% and protein needs about 8% compared to postpartum period.

5. Employ a solid neonatal calf health protocol. Employ a good neonatal health program to protect calves and build their immune systems. While fall-born calves don’t often face the cold or mud that their spring counterparts do, they can endure heat, wide temperature swings and dusty conditions. This can make them at risk for pneumonia.

A well-executed vaccination program is important so that an immune response can be developed before animals face disease challenges. Injectable vaccines deliver a modified-live virus that presents an antigen to help an animal start building its own immunity against a disease. While this is very effective in older animals, these vaccines may be less effective in young calves due to the influence of maternal antibodies.

Intranasal vaccines can be used to vaccinate young calves to reduce the risk of respiratory diseases. Intranasal vaccines are able to put protective immunity in place quickly and stimulate nonspecific immunity at the mucosal surfaces that help to provide protection against pathogens found in the vaccine.

Having a fall-calving herd can bring additional revenue during the spring season. Working with your veterinarian and nutritionist to develop a plan that is right for your operation will go a long way to having a successful fall calving season. end mark

Dr. Chris Thomsen is with Beef Technical Services at Merck Animal Health.

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Chris Thomsen
  • Chris Thomsen

  • Beef Technical Services
  • Merck Animal Health
  • Email Chris Thomsen