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The Cow-Calf Manager

Livestock Update, November 1998

John B. Hall, Extension Animal Scientist, Beef
Animal and Poultry Sciences, Virginia Tech

Last month's Cow-Calf Manager completed the first year of this column, which was designed to cover some of the major practices during a typical year in a spring calving operation. Approximately 75% of the cow/calf units in Virginia calve in the late winter or spring. The remaining 25% calve in the fall. I certainly did not cover all aspects of management of the spring calving beef herd, but with the shift in more producers moving to fall calving or two calving seasons I thought it might be beneficial to cover the year as a fall calving herd. I will try to provide information that is useful to producers regardless of calving season as well.

Monthly reminders for both spring and fall calving herds will be given in the Virginia Cow-Calf Management Calendar section of our Beef Management Tips. Those interested in reviewing last year's Cow-Calf Manager can visit the Virginia Cooperative Extension website at click on Information Resources and continue to the beef management section.

Choosing a Calving Season or Should I Fall Calve?

Traditionally, Virginia cow/calf producers, like cow/calf producers in many parts of the country, have calved in spring. The grass was greening up, the weather was getting warmer, and often the cows own biological rhythm pushed calving towards spring. But choosing a calving season really requires some review of resources and weather before a decision is made. Choosing calving seasons for only one reason or the wrong reasons has often resulted in growth problems, high production costs, or low reproductive performance.

When asked "When should my calving season be?", a response I have often heard from extension specialists and other professionals is " a calving season should be chosen so the greatest amount and highest quality of forage is available when cows and calves have their highest nutritional needs. A calving season should also limit the amount of stored forage that is fed to cows in early lactation and young growing calves". That simple answer means, in most parts of the country, calve in March and April and wean in October or November.

In Northern climates, cows would then calve a month before green grass, hit peak lactation, and breed when the grass is at its best and wean calves before the weather gets really bad. The Mid-Atlantic States and upper South have adopted a similar calving season. As a result, almost 60-80% of the US calf crop is weaned and hits the market in October and November. This system works as far as matching cow needs to forage availability, but also markets calves at the lowest price of the year. In severe winter years, cows may not be in good body condition by breeding time. In addition, it has not always taken into account calf growth rates and total cow cost or return per cow.

Many items need to be considered when deciding on a calving season but some of the most important are listed in Table 1. Deciding on a calving season is actually very complex and producers should seek out advice of extension professionals and cattlemen familiar with their farm and management skills.

Annual forage growth patternsMarketing strategiesLocal weather patterns
Changing Nutritional needs of the cowFacilities - what kind how goodCommercial vs. purebred operations
Seasonal changes in cow reproductive efficiencyManagement abilitiesProfit per cow
Seasonal variation in labor availabilityChanges in cost of production 

We don't have enough space here to cover all the pros and cons of different calving seasons so let's talk a little about fall calving. A new publication on choosing a calving season will be available this spring.

Fall Calving in Virginia

In the Piedmont and Coastal Plains portions of Virginia, spring-calving herds are trying to get cows bred in the hot part of the year (June-Early August) when the effects of fescue on reproduction are at their worst. In addition, spring born calves are hitting their maximum pre-weaning need for high quality forage during the "summer slump" of pasture growth.

Fall calving provides an opportunity to avoid heat related problems with reproduction and to have cows in excellent body condition at calving time. Together this means cows come into heat quickly after calving and have less trouble settling. This still leaves the problem of forage quality and availability for cows and calves when they need it the most.

The key to fall calving in Virginia is stockpiled fescue, high cow condition and flexibility in marketing calves. Stockpiled fescue will provide the forage quality and availability for cows in early lactation. High cow condition will provide an energy source for higher milk production in mid lactation without expensive feed inputs. Flexibility in marketing will allow producers to take advantage of changing markets.

Trying to winter lactating cows by using stored forages and supplements is too expensive (increased cost per cow). Being rigid in time of marketing will result in reductions in income per cow. Both problems alone or together decrease profit per cow. Let's look at two possible scenarios for a fall calving herd and differences in management decisions.

Scenario 1. Anticipated high calf market for calves in March-June. The fall calving herd calves on pasture or aftermath hay fields. Then they move on to stockpiled fescue from December through breeding until the stockpile runs out. When stockpiled fescue runs out , cows are given moderate quality hay and allowed to lose 1 to 3 body condition scores until they reach BCS 4. Cows should not lose body condition until after the end of the breeding season. Calves are creep grazed on winter annuals or creep fed. Calves should gain 2.0 to 2.5+ lb per day. Heavy fleshy calves are marketed by early June. Cows are grazed through summer to add body condition. Excess forage can be harvested for hay or custom grazed with somebody else's calves that they paid too much for.

Scenario 2. Spring calf market is weak. Cows and calves are handled the same as in Scenario 1 until the stockpiled fescue runs out. Then both cows and calves are placed on moderate to good quality hay. Cows are allowed to lose BCS gradually to BCS 4. Limited supplementation of calves may be provided, but calves should only gain 0.5 to 1.0 lb per day. Calves and cows are grazed through summer, but calves are weaned by July 1. Calves are marketed in July or August as heavy feeders.

In summary, fall calving is an excellent, if not preferred, option for Virginia cow/calf producers in the Piedmont and Coastal Plan areas of Virginia. Good weather for calving, and improved reproduction in the cow herd are advantages. However, producers must be progressive in their forage and marketing programs to maximize the profitability of this system.

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