This may be due to tradition, location, financial constraints, etc. Spring calving works well for these operations. However, fall calving has some advantages producers should consider.
Fall calving may be advantageous to producers in regions where fall and winter conditions are conducive to calf growth and re-breeding of cows. The weather and environment of this season helps decrease stressors for cows needing to be re-bred while also creating days that have mild temperatures and little precipitation.
Calves born on the earlier end of that fall calving span will have the opportunity to graze and get a jump start on growth prior to the set-in of winter. Fall calving typically begins in September and goes through November, but there are producers who calve as early as July.
Remember, regardless of calving season, it is considered best management practice to have first-calf heifers calve at least 30 days prior to the mature cows.
Pregnant cows going into fall should be in better body condition since they’re coming off summer grazing and do not yet have a nursing calf. With some non-livestock farm/ranch work slowing down in the fall, labor may be more available to observe calving cows and assist when needed.
Some producers experience lower calving assistance during the fall, so if labor is short, it is still manageable. To maintain calf crop uniformity, tight calving windows can also be designed with both fall and spring calving and is most desirable.
Facilities and conditions
Producers who calve in the spring and operate in regions with harsh, frigid, wet winters usually have their cows calve in barns. In some instances, barn space may be limited, so the calving season may be spread out over several months, resulting in a less uniform calf crop.
Without proper sanitation protocols, bringing multiple groups of cows through calving barns can lead to a buildup of pathogens which may result in a higher incidence of disease outbreaks such as scours. With fall calving, cows are able to roam to a comfortable location to calve, which will be a good distance from other cows, diminishing the spread of pathogens.
In wet, muddy conditions, a calf’s energy requirements can be greater, possibly up to 10 percent greater. The dryer conditions associated with fall calving help to lessen illness in the calf crop and increase calf survivability rates, as there is a decrease in contamination and pathogen buildup.
Calves may also tend to mother up better during this season since the weather is preferable. Calves will still experience some sickness as summer turns to fall; however, it tends to be less of an issue and the calves get less stressed.
When temperatures cool off and it’s time to re-breed, a producer may see increased conception rates. Come spring, when forages become abundant again, fall-born calves will be mature enough to graze and should experience excellent weight gains and heavier weaning weights, as suggested by some studies.
Marketing and sales
Fall calving from a management standpoint also seems to set a producer up with the option to implement a preconditioning program, since the producer will already have the management task of feeding a calf through winter.
This ultimately should result in having weaned and preconditioned calves in time for the fall run. Remember, preconditioned cattle tend to receive premiums, as they will perform better in the feedlot and experience less illness, i.e., a lower yardage cost.
Historically, in October the market is flooded with weaned, spring-born calves, giving an advantage to the fall-calving operations that can market their calves prior to the rush of spring-born calves.
Additionally, fall-calving producers get to experience the cattle market upswing in the early spring, having yearling calves that will be bigger and tend to be of more value. If retaining ownership, there’s also an additional advantage come March, when fat cattle prices are higher.
There are many reasons to consider fall calving. So why don’t more producers chose this management option? Calving cows in the fall can create unique challenges. To begin with, depending on when calving begins, there is the issue of having access to and being able to provide adequate nutrition to cows that have a nursing calf.
The cow’s nutrition requirements will be greater at this time and could coincide with when grazing has become poor from lacking quantity and quality, as a result of summer heat and before the onset of cool-season grasses.
Unlike spring-calving producers who will winter dry cows, fall calving creates the disadvantage of having to provide higher-quality feed to lactating cows, whose nutrient requirements are 25 to 30 percent higher. In addition, a supply of high-quality feed will be required to feed young calves during the winter.
In years when hay supply is abundant and prices are reasonable, this won’t be as much of an issue, but when hay is in short supply and prices are high, that extra cost can be of concern to producers since feed costs account for 65 to 70 percent of annual costs, an amount that increases if cows are lactating.
On top of providing hay to calves, a producer may need to also provide a creep ration, which will add to winter feed costs.
There is the issue of cows being dispersed out on range when the calving season begins, which will require additional attention and management. As was mentioned earlier, fall-born calves could experience greater weaning weights from being able to forage on spring grasses.
There is the possibility, though, that fall calves going through a harsh winter will actually have poor gain and lower weaning weights, which has been demonstrated by several research studies.
Making a plan
If you are a spring-calving producer who wants to switch to fall calving, how can you make that happen? There are several management practices that can be utilized to make the switch. The simplest way is to delay turning bulls in with the cows for six to seven months. Another option is to delay breeding replacement heifers along with late-calving cows to speed things up.
The year the switch is made can create major cash-flow problems for the operation. To maintain cash flow throughout the year, a producer could convert a portion of their herd each year over several years until the entire herd has been switched to fall calving.
Another option to have a fall-calving herd is to purchase fall-calving cows. This may be difficult, since fewer cows are bred to calve in the fall. Another alternative is to purchase late- or summer-calving cows and then hold the bulls to delay the breeding/calving season.
Just as with spring calving, producers making a transition to fall calving need to ensure the cow has a body condition of 4.5 to 5 by calving time. When calving time arrives, cows should be moved to pastures easily supervised and which have access to handling facilities.
Previously grazed pastures or hay fields that have some regrowth are good options. Following calving, the pairs will be able to stay on pasture as long as forage is plentiful. At this time, however, do not let the cow’s body condition score drop as cows with a nursing calf are more susceptible to issues associated to a lack of nutrients.
Once calves are weaned, the cow’s nutrient requirements will be reduced by approximately one-third and cows can utilize poorer-quality forage. Remember to always provide an adequate mineral and vitamin supplement.
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- Extension Educator
- University of Idaho