Ranch manager Joel Vaad shifted to later calving and made other adjustments after carefully analyzing his options for reducing feed costs and boosting returns at the Maxwell Ranch near Livermore, Colo. The Maxwell Ranch is owned by the Colorado State University Research Foundation but receives no funding from the university and operates as a commercial ranch. The ranch runs about 330 cows on 12,000 acres of northern Colorado foothills — dry country where Vaad says he needs about 40 acres to support each cow-calf pair through the year. For decades, the ranch operated with a typical February–March calving season, which Vaad says worked fine when feed prices were lower. The ranch does not produce any hay and historically had purchased hay for winter feeding. Back in the 1990s, with hay prices around $60 per ton, Vaad says it cost around $110 per cow for winter feed. But as we know, feed prices escalated over the past decade, and in 2007, with alfalfa priced at $150 per ton, winter feed costs at the Maxwell jumped to $262 per cow. That’s when Vaad decided something needed to change. He spent considerable time researching options for the ranch. Consulting with university scientists and Extension specialists, veterinarians, marketing representatives and others, he decided to propose a later calving season. Among other advantages, he believed later calving would allow 12-month grazing and a significant reduction in late-winter feeding, as cows could regain body condition on spring forage during the critical periods of late gestation, calving and lactation. A change of that magnitude required approval from the CSU Research Foundation’s board, so he conducted a detailed economic analysis of three calving seasons: February–March, April–May and May–June. He compared the effects of high and low calf and feed prices in each scenario, and on paper, the May–June calving season provided the highest returns. He proposed the change to the board and gained approval, and in 2009 waited until the end of July, rather than the first of May, to turn the bulls in with the cows. That fall, Vaad cut back his hay purchases dramatically, planning to feed alfalfa hay just as a protein supplement during February, March and April, rather than as the primary feed through calving season. He also keeps some extra hay on hand as emergency feed in case of a winter storm. In addition to being the most cost-effective protein supplement, Vaad says, alfalfa provides the opportunity to feed large quantities just two times per week. This allows all the cows access, instead of some dominant cows consuming most of the supplement, and it also saves fuel. The results were dramatic. By the end of April, he had fed 78 tons of alfalfa, compared with about 500 tons in previous years. At $95 per ton of alfalfa delivered to the ranch, that worked out to less than $24 per cow in winter supplemental feed. “Had we continued with our typical calving season, the feed cost per cow would have been about $170 per cow if we did not feed free choice. That is a savings of $121 per cow in winter feed.” By March and April, he was somewhat concerned that cows were losing body condition, with some younger females grading BCS 4. But within three weeks of green-up, as calving got underway, he couldn’t find any females with scores lower than 5. Naturally there are some tradeoffs in this kind of change. Vaad said he thought he might need to reduce cow numbers on the ranch based on 12 months of grazing versus nine. It turned out he had an opportunity to lease additional land from an adjacent ranch, which added a $7,000 expense. Taking that into account, he says, the cost per cow for feed plus the pasture rent was $46 per cow. On ranches where forage production is underutilized, ranchers might be able to extend their grazing seasons without additional land. Later calving also means lighter weaning weights, and the ranch weaned steers this fall at an average of 439 pounds versus 550 pounds previously, with heifers averaging 400 pounds. The price slide helped make up the difference. Other than a group of 13 heavier steers sorted off at 552 pounds, the steers sold for $147 per hundredweight, and the heifers brought $128 per hundredweight. The group of heavier steers sold for $117 per hundredweight. At the time the lighter steers sold for $147, the average video-auction price for similar 550-pound steers was $121 per hundredweight. It worked out that heavier calves would have netted about $40 per head more than the lighter, later-born calves. But the lower cow costs more than made up for that, with a final advantage to late calving of about $84 per head. In addition to the cow-cost advantage, labor during calving is much lower and, Vaad says, calf health has been excellent, with virtually no calf scours or summer pneumonia. Vaad notes that during preg-checking this fall, his team found 27 open cows, which is up from the ranch average of 13 to 15, and the total included some 2-year-old cows, which seemed surprising. But once he thought it over and questioned some specialists, it makes sense. “We’re pushing the cows harder than ever by grazing them year-round,” he says. “We’ll probably need to weed some out that won’t work.” He expects that by culling open cows and keeping replacement heifers from cows that fit the system, pregnancy rates will move back up. Later calving and year-round grazing won’t fit every ranching environment, but it is one option to consider as producers recognize the need to evaluate their production systems and find ways to minimize the cost of inputs.
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