I don't know of any enterprise that a person could be involved with that would be more dependent on the weather than field crop production. A person can have the best management plan possible in regards to seed, fertilizer, weed control, disease control, marketing, etc. However, if Mother Nature doesn't cooperate, the best plans simply aren't going to be as successful. There are some species of livestock where the impacts of weather have been minimalized through production systems. Modern swine and poultry production come to mind. Cattle producers are definitely impacted by weather through the impacts on forage growth.
Grain and livestock producers are easily frustrated by the impacts of weather. We spend a lot of time cussing and discussing the weather but there is very little we are going to do to change it. If you need to spend time worrying about something, do it on something you can actually control. For cow-calf producers, now is the time to manage your breeding season and consider its effects on your entire operation.
If you are involved in a spring calving season, you are already into or will soon be in the midst of breeding season. Several seedstock producers have been in breeding season for several weeks in order to hopefully produce breeding stock for potential customers. Typical commercial producers are just starting or will soon begin their breeding season.
The 2007-08 National Animal Health Management System (NAHMS) Beef Study surveyed producers from across the country on a variety of management practices. In terms of percentage of calves born by month and percentage of operations calving by month, the top five months for calving were: 1st: March, 2nd: April, 3rd: February, 4th: May, and 5th: January. Producers returning surveys at the 2013 Ohio Beef Cattle School indicated a very similar preference for months to calve. The NAHMS Study also indicated that tradition and weather were the top two factors used when determining the timing of the most recent calving season.
Obviously, the length of the breeding season impacts the duration of the calving season. The previously mentioned NAHMS Study also surveyed producer attitudes in regards to the length of the breeding season. The survey reported that in regards to length of their last breeding season, 26.2% of the operations were less than 64 days, 12.7% between 64 and 84 days, 21.9% between 85 and 105 days, 16.8% between 106 and 149 days, and 22.4% at 150 days or more.
Based on the results of the most recent NAHMS Beef Study and information that we gained from the 2013 Ohio Beef Cattle School, I believe these statistics accurately reflect the attitudes of Ohio cow-calf operations towards their breeding season management. Each producer must select the timing of their calving season that works best within the overall scope of their respective operations. I may prefer a January-February calving season while an April-May calving season may work best for you. However, I believe there is much less room for debate in terms of the length of the calving season.
Nearly every management decision associated with the cow herd is simplified with a shorter calving season. Herd health, nutritional, and reproductive management are much easier when all cows are in a similar stage of production. Restricting the breeding season to 60 to 90 days will produce a more uniform calf crop which enhances marketing opportunities. It is easier to match up your forage supply with the nutritional demands of your herd when all animals are in a similar production cycle. Vaccination programs are more effective when animals in the breeding herd are in a similar reproductive status.
A more concentrated calving season is important for the smaller or part-time producers who have major time restrictions in their daily lives. I don't know of any producer that enjoys the stress and worry of calving season over an extended period of time. This is especially true if calving season comes during inclement weather and you are away from the farm for long stretches of time during an average day.
A shorter calving season will eventually lead to greater efficiencies in reproduction rates. Palpate shortly after the conclusion of the breeding season and cull heifers and cows that don't conceive within your given calving season and don't look back. Keep daughters of the cows that get bred early each calving season. If necessary, buy bred females that calve within your desired window to replace the open females. Implementation of these practices will certainly improve your herd's reproductive performance over time.
Given the current prices seen in today's cattle markets, culling females with poor reproductive performance should not be a difficult decision. Open yearling heifers can be sold as heavy feeder cattle or fed a finishing ration for a short period and sold as market heifers. While prices for feeder and market cattle have moderated a bit as of late, they still remain very favorable. Open cows are selling at a premium price compared to historic levels so take advantage of this marketing opportunity. You may slip below your targeted herd size through aggressive culling. Replace open females or females conceiving outside of a 60-90 day calving season window with bred heifers or young cows that fit your shortened calving season.
The NAHMS Beef Study mentioned earlier indicated that nearly 25% of the operations have a breeding season of 150 days or more. I must admit that it baffles me as to why anyone would want to have a breeding or calving season that long. I have heard some producers attempt to justify an extended or year-round calving season by saying they like the ability to spread out their cash flow by marketing calves at different times of the year. The management advantages provided by a shorter calving season far outweigh any perceived cash flow advantages resulting from an extended calving season.
If you think about it, maybe Mother Nature may actually have it right with one aspect of the weather. Each of our weather seasons lasts approximately 90 days. Why should we allow the cattle breeding season to last any longer?
Source: John F. Grimes, OSU Extension Beef Coordinator