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Calving Seasons and Management

Calving Seasons and Management

John Dhuyvetter, North Central Research Extension Area Livestock Specialist


Winter calving in North Dakota this year seems to feel more like spring calving and may get ranchers questioning their calving season strategy. Winter calving (January – March) has and is the choice for most seed stock operations and for many smaller – moderate sized diversified operations. Breeders want big well developed yearling bulls to feature in their winter spring production sales which will have maturity for greater summer breeding. Some operations with considerable spring farming work load, want calving completed while they can devout considerable attention to the herd and not be distracted or taking time away from farming operations later. They also realize the ability to sell heavier feeder calves off the cow at the close of the grazing season in October – November to be a high value marketing strategy.

To calve at this time of the year you have to be prepared with infastructive and facilities. For close observation the herd needs to be confined and fed in a lot or small paddock. When weather is tough; heavies should be in bedded barns or brought into calving pens as they go into labor and held for several days till calves are a few days old. Calving cameras can be helpful in monitoring cattle in close quarters but herd checks every three to four hours is routine. For the most part every pair is handled making tagging and calf processing easy. Generally life is easier and it is a healthy situation for calves if the ground stays frozen and bedded vs later in March when warmer temperatures and perception create slop and mud.

Early calving seasons also create an opportunity for some pen or AI breeding at home by facilities prior to moving herds to summer grazing. Bigger older calves are also able to make good use of spring grass as grazers. But cows which calve well ahead of spring grass need to be fed rations that support lactation which require considerably greater feed quality or supplementations. This is usually significantly more expensive than feeding a gestating cow contributing to greater wintering costs for early calving.

The alternative if calving barns and calving labor is limited for the situation is to hold off calving tell later in the year past the bitter February cold, wet March snows and April mud. By calving in late April and May, with some contingency plans for a late weather event and portable shelters, calving can occur on pastures. For pasture calving cows are generally not checked at night, but several times during the day to process and record calves. If cow health is good and mated for bulls of acceptable calving ease, often fewer problems are seen than seen than with lot calving. The conflict with farming, while a distraction, can be managed. However, malpresented twins or other problems may not be identified or assisted in as timely a fashion.

Lighter calves in the fall will at least parlially be offset by an opportunity to feed/graze the cowherd cheaper over winter. For herds which struggle with calf health issues and losses in the winter lots, it’s likely that you will save a few more calves with less medical expenses by late/pasture calving. Additionally late born calves might be left on the cow through fall and early winter (If herd is on feed supportive lactation) or weaved and backgrounded to heavier sale weights.

Of course the season you calve, shifts the time table for everything from processing, weaning, working cows, and turning in and getting out bulls. A concern of breeding in hotter months that it may affect cow breed up, doesn’t appear to be a real issue. However nutritional plane of cows at breeding and adequate water is. A rotational grazing plan that provides cows good grazing in July and August will insure nutrition supportive of good fertility.

For the most part cattlemen will calf when they can make it work for their situation. There is no one most profitable time to calf. Early calves need to offset greater costs with high calf valve and late calves need to control costs to offset lighter calf weights. Profitable ranching is about balancing cattle type and genetics, feed resources, operational conflicts, and personal goals and philosophies

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