For most cow-calf operations across the United States, fall’s early frost marks a time when weaning of spring-born calves is complete or coming to an end and cows are prepped to finish gestation through the cold winter months. However, for some cow-calf producers, the cooling temperatures open the heat to their fall calving window.
Traditionally, fall calving has been something more heavily utilized by southern producers, says University of Nebraska-Lincoln Professor and Extension Beef Specialist Rick Rasby. However, as grass prices increase steadily throughout the Midwest and Great Plains regions, so does the number of producers looking to utilize available forage resources like corn stalk residues.
“If a northern cow-calf producer is going to take advantage of a fall calving climate, typically they’ll start towards the later part of August and very beginning of the September before weather turns cold. I like to refer to this as late summer calving,” says Rasby. “Operations that are located further south tend to hold off a little later, until at least the mid part of September and on into the true fall months.”
Regardless of location and starting date, determining if a fall calving system is right for a particular operation boils down to evaluating a few specific criteria, including natural resource availability, marketing strategy and labor.
When it comes to planning the breeding and calving seasons on the Santa Rosa Ranch, those three criteria are kept in mind with every decision. The southeast Texas Brangus and UltraBlack (Brangus x Angus) seedstock and commercial cow-calf operation’s locations are spread along the Trinity River Basin outside of Crockett, Texas, and in Navasota, south of College Station, Texas.
Kelley Sullivan, co-owner, says the operation runs a split fall and spring calving system to get the most out of their resources and service their customer base.
“We are fortunate to have rich blackland soil that offers the opportunity to produce a great deal of grass,” she says. “The primary warm season grasses are various Bermudagrasses which typically begin their growth stage in March. Our cool season grasses include ryegrass and oats, which we will greenchop in the spring to get off of the Bermudagrass; therefore, we don’t waste a lot of forage.”
Because of this, the ranch is able to stretch their forage resources more easily at a higher nutritional value, adding the ability to tailor seasonal grass grazing systems to their cows’ nutritional requirements.
According to Rasby, whether a producer is available to provide adequate nutrition to lactating cows preparing for breeding season is the main make it or break it point for producers weighing out fall versus spring calving systems.
“Fall calving challenges are two-fold,” he explains. “Are you going to be able to supply nutrition to the cow during mid- to peak-lactation? Because those requirements are fairly high. And are you’re going to start the breeding period during a time when the weather can be rough? Particularly for northern producers.”
One huge benefit to fall calving cows is their ability to build and maintain a solid body condition score while utilizing forage during its peak in the summer months after their calf has been weaned. Since body condition is directly related to fertility, this can give producers an extra advantage to their breeding program. Meeting nutritional requirements without breaking the bank are essential to the success of a cow-calf operation, says Rasby. For a more in depth look on nutritional requirements relating to reproduction, read Feeding for fertility on page 6.
For the Santa Rosa Ranch, a key driver in the decision to run a split calving system is marketing potential that comes with it. With less of a surplus of calves on the market compared to spring, Sullivan says the ranch has more opportunities to channel their commercial calves. According to her, the ranch keeps close track of the market and market-high trends to gauge whether to send their calves directly to feedlots or backgrounding stocker operators. This allows them flexibility in waiting to market commercial calves until they see a market that’s hot after beef.
However, when it comes to their seedstock operation, the fall calving herd is all about servicing customer’s needs.
“Like any seedstock producer, we’re here to help our customers, not manage in a way that is most convenient for us,” she says. “We sell breeding stock, so we need to make sure it fits a variety of management practices.”
Cow-calf producers who chose to have a split calving system need to be prepared for the extra labor involved. Often when calving begins for one season, weaning is about to take place for another. Also, in the case of the Santa Rosa Ranch, if synchronized breeding is utilized, the process must be completed twice a year instead of one. And for northern area producers, this often falls at a time when the weather can be volatile. However, synchronization allows for more control on the calving window and reduces the length of the season.
“We need to care for our people so they don’t burn out,” says Sullivan. “Once they’ve finished up with fall calving, spring is gearing up to start. There is always heavy activity going on, especially with the seedstock side.”
While fall calving can be more labor intensive for some, Rasby says it’s often utilized by producers involved in other enterprises that may consume a lot of their time in the spring. And while he admits having a dual calving system can be a labor intensive drawback, there is a catch.
“If you have a young female come up open, there is always the possibility of rolling her over into the next calving season and giving her a second chance,” he says. “Although, this should be practiced with great discipline. Open cows that don’t fit your herd should be culled.”
Weather and health
For both Rasby and Sullivan, neither one of them see a significant impacts on calf health related to the time of the year they are born. However, it’s essential to keep a close watch on calves, especially when temperature swings arise.
“In the earlier time period of fall calving there can be a lot of variety in temperature with the warm days and cool nights. Because of this, it is absolutely essential producers are on the lookout for respiratory problems,” he says. “Regardless of what calving season a producer uses, they need to work with their veterinarian to develop a health care program for their herd.”
Rasby says one concern for producers further north is calves being able to sustain colder months during a developmental stage of their life. According to him, as long as calves have adequate shelter, nutrition and develop a thick hair coat, colder weather won’t be an issue.
Further south, producers need to be proactive in preventing heat related complications.
“You have to be on the lookout for dehydration in calves and be prepared to help calves get around that,” stresses Rasby.
This plays a big role in why the Santa Rosa Ranch fall calves in pastures with shaded areas.
“All of our calving pastures have ample shade available to give cows and calves added protection,” says Sullivan. “And like producers everywhere, our calf health management plan is a top priority, so our employees ride through them often to get a head start on any kind of problem that may occur.”