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What problems are we causing ourselves this calving season?

Jordan Thomas for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 December 2021
Calving season

Sometimes I wonder what cow-calf production in the U.S. would look like if we all spent more time with books in our hands instead of tools.

Although not directly related to cattle, one book on my must-read list for every cow-calf producer is Out of the Crisis by the great systems-thinker Dr. W. Edwards Deming. The systems concepts and patterns presented are so challenging that, after they have sunk in, it is hard not to see every problem we face in cow-calf production through that lens.

Common causes

As we think about the problems we face when calving out cows, the systems concepts of “common causes” and “special causes” of variability are helpful. Common causes of variability are those components of a system we could sketch out and wrap our heads around if we tried, whereas special causes of variability are those random or uncontrollable factors that come from outside of the system.

It has been said that 90% of the problems in a system actually have assignable, common causes that could be understood and managed. Only about 10% of the problems in a system stem from unassignable, special causes that come from outside of the system. Interestingly, though, our natural instinct seems to be to assume the exact opposite: Managers assume special causes for about 90% of problems. In other words, management tends to blame human error, extremely unusual events or other random problems instead of trying to better understand the overall system and improve its quality.

As managers and as individuals, we have a bad habit of pretending everything has a special cause. Here’s an example. You probably know someone who is chronically late for everything and always has some kind of excuse. They were stuck behind a school bus. They hit all of the red lights. They had to stop for gas. If you think about what they are saying, they are attempting to call those things special causes rather than common causes of variability in their commute time. Aren’t those just normal sources of variation, though? Pretending these things are special causes is just a way to avoid taking responsibility for poor management – in this case, management of their departure time. Expansive views of systems force us to recognize more and more things as common causes, and that puts the onus back on us as managers to create better systems.

Control points for a better calving season

If you are in the middle of a rough calving season, perhaps set this article down and revisit it later. It might rub you the wrong way. We are going to work from the premise that 90% of our problems are actually our own fault. Or, to say it a bit more precisely, we will assume 90% of our problems stem from common causes of variability within the management system we created. Our obligation – really our opportunity – as managers is really to create better systems rather than simply putting out the fires of the day. There is a lot to think about on the topic of calving, but I will focus on two big pieces today.

Can you calve on green grass?

The recommendation to calve when you have abundant, high-quality forage is certainly not a new one. Cows require greater nutrition when lactating, and aligning calving with the forage yield curve in your area is essentially aligning demand with supply. By choosing to calve in alignment with the timing of good forage-growing conditions, we also happen to calve when calf survival would be highest. In any one year, we might get away with a poorly timed calving season. But if we choose to calve cows in a season of the year when the risk of calf death loss is high, we are building a risk-prone system.

If you are calving in synch with forage resources, managing grazing during the calving season is critically important. There are a number of implications for calf survival, especially if you are not managing for a short calving season to begin with. Variation in age of calves presents a risk of scours, and we mitigate some of this with systems like the Sandhills Calving System and with managed grazing in general.

Can you minimize the number of later-born calves?

Since variation in calf age can be problematic and complicate management, managing for a short calving season is critical. A pregnancy examination performed early enough to accurately determine expected calving date can provide extremely valuable information if you are willing to market late-conceiving cows as bred females.

We also want the distribution of when calves are born to be skewed as early as possible within the calving season. Though increasing genetic potential for weaning weight can arguably drag along some problems related to cow size and economic efficiency, there are major management opportunities to increase weaning weight per standard animal unit or per acre. Consider that a modern beef calf often gains somewhere between 1.6 and 2.4 pounds per day from birth to weaning. If we take the mid-point of 2 pounds per day simply to make the math easy, a cow that calves on the first day of the calving season will bring a 60-pound heavier calf to the weaning pen than a cow that calves on day 30 of the calving season, all other things being equal. Management decisions that result in earlier conception within the breeding season ultimately reduce variation in calf age – not only early on when it is consequential for calf morbidity and mortality, but also later on when it is consequential for weaning weights of calves.

Earlier-calving cows also have more days to recover after calving and resume normal estrous cycles before the next breeding season. Those cows are more likely to breed back early in the following breeding season. From that perspective, then, creating more early conceiving cows this year creates potential for more early conceiving cows next year. Aside from the above-described benefits for calf performance, consider the lifelong return-on-investment potential of those cows. Cow depreciation, the annual loss in value of the cow herd, almost always represents the second-largest cost (after feed costs) of cow-calf production. Cows that fail to breed back and are marketed as open rather than pregnant effectively drive up the cost of cow depreciation, as these cows are sold at about the lowest salvage value possible. Managing for early conception among cows and being willing to market later-conceiving cows is an underappreciated strategy to control this hidden cost of production.

We often forget that we reap during the calving season what we sowed during the breeding season. Management for early conception during the breeding season has a number of positive ripple effects throughout the system. From my perspective, those effects are the most exciting benefits of estrus synchronization programs. Whether using synchronization programs designed for A.I. or those designed for use with natural-service bulls, there are a number of economic advantages to the front-loaded calving season that can be attained over successive years.

Conclusion

In the moment, no one likes to be told their problem is really of their own making. If your neighbors are calving cows in a blizzard right now or in the middle of what seems like a never-ending calving season, it is probably not the right time to remind them they were the ones who chose to manage this way. That is not your business (literally) anyway. But it’s always a good time to have a heart to heart with the person in the mirror: What problems are we causing ourselves this calving season?   end mark

PHOTO: Timing calving with good forage resources is advantageous for both the calf and the cow. Photo by Julie Brown.

Jordan Thomas
  • Jordan Thomas

  • State Cow-Calf Specialist
  • University of Missouri
  • Email Jordan Thomas

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