Written by Ryan Sterry, UW Extension Ag Agent, St. Croix Co., and recently appeared in the Wisconsin Agriculturist
Much of the focus for beef cattle reproduction programs is on breeding cows in a timely fashion and narrowing the range of the calving window. There’s no getting around the fact that excessive days open, and open cows at calving season, cause considerable financial losses for cow/calf operations. Narrowing the calving window reduces variation in calf age, thus helping to produce a more uniform calf crop at market time.
However, sometimes things don’t go according to plan, especially when it comes to reproduction. A new twist to this old problem is the low inventory of the national beef cow herd, which in many markets is placing a premium on pregnant cows and heifers. This may bring about the temptation to try one more time on those cows that didn’t conceive during your normal breeding season. Extending the breeding season will have the carry over effect of transitioning a portion of the herd from Spring or Summer calving to a Fall calving season.
If you are considering breeding cows for a fall calving season, an early pregnancy diagnosis strategy is a must. Having a timely pregnancy check in place for the herd will give you the option of quickly re-breeding open cows or culling them. Those cows conceiving to the later breeding could be alternatively marketed as pregnant fall calving cows, or retained in your herd.
A University of Nebraska Extension article by Rick Rasby highlights the considerations of whether or not open cows should be exposed again for breeding or culled. Age of the cow, calving problems, udder and other structural problems, disposition, and inability to care for a calf should be taken in to account. Even if you have the ability to re-breed open cows, consideration should still be given to culling cows with these faults.
A partial budget is highly recommended to help make the decision to extend the breeding and calving season for your particular farm. A partial budget should account for added revenue, added expenses, and any decreases in revenue or expenses from making the change. If you are going to market cows as fall calving, is there enough of a price difference between pregnant fall calving cows and cull cows to justify the added expense? Do your traditional markets look for fall calving cows, or will you have to do research to find an alternative market?
If you are going to retain cows for fall calving, a partial budget is even more important. Along with the financial implications, it will mean significant management changes such as the time and labor of an added fall calving season, and managing nursing cows and calves through our winter environment. Snow, ice, and mud are Wisconsin winter realities, and you need to be prepared for how you will get mother and calf through them. Managing the nutrition of the fall calving herd is another consideration. Remember, fall calving cows will still be nursing calves through the winter and will require a higher plane of nutrition than our typical winter dry cow rations provide. An honest assessment of your availability of higher quality forages, the cost of necessary purchased feeds, adequate facilities to keep those animals clean and dry, and your ability to more intensively manage nutrition is a must.
There is a potential upside though to look at. Fall born calves can be marketed as feeders in early spring, a time at which feeder calf prices typically rising and there are fewer calves on the market to compete with. Or, if you have adequate availability of pasture, calves can be retained and grazed through the summer and marketed in the fall as yearlings. Depending on your operation, fall calving cows have summer pastures to recuperate on and regain condition. Also, fall calving cows will be bred again before the heat of summer. A more detailed listing of the considerations for the fall calving beef herd can be found in the Michigan State Extension article “Fall Calving fits Michigan’s Climate for Beef Cow/Calf Herds” by Frank Wardynski.