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Calving during the growing season is one of the most beneficial strategies in grass-fed beef production. It is the single-most important change that any cow/calf producer can make to their entire farming operation because of the dramatic positive impact on conception rates, beef cattle fertility, feed costs, cattle health, labor savings, and more.
In the article about how to choose the best date to calve in your grass-fed beef program, I explained the nutritional benefits of calving during the growing season and why this translates into higher cow fertility and higher conception rates in your cow/calf herd.
This article will therefore focus on the calving season itself by explaining why both cows and calves benefit so significantly when calving is scheduled to happen during the growing season and why this leads to such significant cost savings for any farmer switching to a summer calving schedule.
It is very important to clarify that I am talking about scheduling calving to start about 3 to 4 weeks after the beginning of the growing season to give the cows time to fatten up before birthing begins. This will be the same calving schedule used by the wild grazing species in your area.
This article will also explain how changing the calving date affects your entire beef cattle marketing strategy, impacting when and how you decide to sell your cattle (either as live long yearlings or as grass finished beef), and even determines which beef cattle breeds will be the best fit for your marketing and production program.
As you are about to see, the benefits of raising cattle to give birth on pasture during the growing season extend far beyond cattle nutrition and conception rates. When you switch your cow herd to give birth during the growing season, you're changing far more than just a date on the calendar - you're changing the very essence of calving season.
But before we take a closer look at giving birth during the growing season, I'd like to share some of my personal experiences in the text box below because they highlight in vivid detail how far-reaching the changes are when you change a simple date on your calendar:
As the text box above illustrates, scheduling cattle birthing during the growing season significantly reduces the birthing difficulties of your cow/calf herd. The positive benefits to your beef cattle management are truly remarkable.
But these differences are not magical - there are clear, definite reasons why the time of year that your cows give birth makes such a difference to their ability to calve unassisted.
A cow that gives birth on pasture is consuming the absolute best quality nutrition available. The grass is lush, green, growing, and full of nutrients. And the weather is warm. It's no surprise that the cows feel their best and are healthiest in this scenario. And wandering all over a pasture to graze means the cattle are getting daily exercise in the run-up to giving birth. This all translates into easier births.
Remarkably, the gestation period is also slightly shorter when cattle give birth during the growing season.
Since the cows are in better health during the growing season, they don't seem to hold on to their calves as long. By giving birth a few days sooner, the calf birth weights are correspondingly lighter and are easier to pop out.
But the success or failure of calving season is not just measured by how many live calves hit the ground. During next few weeks and months the newborns are extremely vulnerable to disease pressures like scours, pneumonia, coccidiosis, and more.
Colostrum transfers the antibodies of the mother's immune system to the newborn calf. The quality (and quantity) of colostrum that the calf drinks during the 12 to 24 hour interval immediately after birth will determine the resilience of the calf's immune system for the next 3 months until the calf's immune system begins developing it's own antibodies at around 3 months of age.
After this brief 12-24 hour window, the cow stops producing colostrum (switching to producing pure milk instead) and the calf becomes less receptive to the immunity contained within colostrum, even it if is given colostrum from other sources. The sooner the calf drinks colostrum after birth (the earlier within this 12-24 hour window), the better it's immune system will be for the next 3 months. It even has some effect on the calf's immune system for the rest of it's life!
By now you may already have guessed how this discussion about colostrum is related to giving birth during the growing season...
The cow's health is best and her immune system strongest during the warm lush growing season. Not surprisingly, her milk production starts sooner and the quality and quantity of her colostrum will be higher.
But even more importantly, when a calf is born onto warm dry pastures (free of ice, snow or mud) is going to learn how to stand up, walk much quicker, and have significantly more energy (and a bigger appetite). And that means it will be drinking colostrum sooner and drink more of it before the 12-24 hour window passes.
Catching calves on foot in the hours immediately after they are born in late-winter or early-spring is relatively easy because the newborns are slow to get up, slower to react, and a bit unsteady during their first day on the world. But when they are born on pasture, they are notoriously hard to catch on foot almost from the moment they first learn to stand. It's easy to see from this example how the warmer, drier weather translates into calves that are stronger, steadier, and more energetic, which leads them to drink more colostrum and drink it sooner. No surprise then that they're more prepared to fend off disease pressures.
Calves born in late winter or early spring are surrounded by bacteria - it's the right temperature and weather for the bacteria to thrive. And there are lots of ways to transmit disease between infected and uninfected animals - dirty mud puddles, dirty bedding, dirty udders, and dirty snow banks. None of these exist in the lush growing pasture.
The warm dry weather during the growing season significantly reduces disease pressures. It's the wrong temperature for the disease pathogens to thrive. And a thick cover of grass keeps bacteria in the soil locked out of reach. There are no contaminated puddles to drink from and no contaminated mud and manure concentrations to spread the contagion.
And there's lots of bright sunlight to sterilize disease-contaminated areas while manure quickly dries up in the heat and sun.
Oral-fecal contamination is one of the leading causes of disease transmission among newborns who are nosing about unfamiliar surroundings, nibbling on whatever is underfoot, and sucking on udders that dangle dangerously close to the ground.
But on pasture udders are constantly wiped clean by the tall grass. And more importantly, on pasture at the peak of the growing season there is no mud or manure to splash up underfoot and contaminate udders dangling so close to the ground. Udders stay clean, which means that when the calf goes for a drink of milk it isn't playing Russian Roulette with its life every time it latches onto a teat.
When calves are born in late winter or early spring you can generally predict how much disease pressure a farmer will face among his/her newborns just by looking at how well-managed their livestock bedding program is.
Calves are not born with a winter hair coat. They need a warm place to bed down to stay strong and healthy.
And newborns need a clean place to bed down so their hides stay clean and so they don't nose about and lick dirty bedding while accidentally ingesting manure- and disease-contaminated material.
But when they are born in summer, in the midst of a daily pasture rotation, the pasture provides that fresh, clean, warm place to bed down that is free of the dangerous manure concentrations. Raising beef cattle so they are born on pasture instantly eliminates all the expensive beef-management costs that producers face when they calve outside of the growing season.
In summer calves are born with the weather and nutrition stacked in their favor.
Cows have the best nutrition to support lactation and maximize their fertility for the next grazing season.
Farmers benefit from higher survival rates in their herds, higher conception rates in their brood cattle, longer winter grazing seasons, lower feed costs, lower veterinary bills, and less work to care for their cattle during the birthing season.
It's a win-win-win for everyone involved.
Most conventional cow/calf producers who are raising cattle to give birth in the late winter or early spring will subsequently wean in the late fall and take their weanlings directly to auction as 500 - 750 pounders. Obviously this won't work if you switch your cow-herd to give birth during the growing season because the calves will still be too young to wean in the fall. They will need to be wintered on-farm and will be ready to wean sometime during the winter - at the latest one to two months before the cows are ready to give birth again.
This means rethinking your beef cattle marketing strategy.
Selling the calves at weaning the following spring (or during the winter) just before the start of the next growing season doesn't make sense. With the next growing season just about to begin there will be plenty of cheap grass available and these yearlings will be primed to take advantage of it with rapid compensatory gains after the long winter. It makes sense to pack on that weight on your farm, for your financial benefit, rather than sending those yearlings on to someone else.
For those that do not want to grass-finish, preferring to sell back into the conventional cattle auction system, the previous year's calf crop is best fattened through the summer as yearlings and sold in late-summer or early- fall straight off pasture as they reach the 800-900 pound range desired by feedlots.
Keep in mind that the ideal purchase weight desired by the buyer who will be finishing the cattle will depend on your cattle's frame size (and beef cattle breed(s)). Feedlots need a good 200 to 300 pounds of gains during the finishing stage to make their beef cattle marketing strategy work, so any cattle that are already too heavy will have their price discounted in order for the feedlots to be able to turn a profit during their period of ownership.
Cattle that are ready to begin the finishing stage are typically priced fairly high during late summer or early fall because they are in short supply.
Feedlots need a steady supply of cattle, but with the majority of producers raising beef cattle to give birth in late winter or early spring, this creates a supply shortage of pre-finish-weight cattle at certain times of the year. Late summer to early fall is one of these times because the conventional-born cattle are still too light for finishing, have still not been weaned, and still have not come onto the market.
Being out of sync with the masses (and in sync with nature's ideal calving schedule) allows you to supply this particular market niche. You are selling while supplies are low and feedlot demand is high. Then, shortly after you sell, the weanlings start flooding the market in mid to late fall, driving prices down.
While this phenomenon varies with each local market and depends on the balance of feedlot demand and the supply of other cattle coming onto market, it is worth investigating the seasonal trends of your local cattle market - you will be likely be rewarded with a premium for selling pre-finish-stage cattle at a time when others are not able to supply them. It pays not to follow the herd...
Some producers panic at the thought of retaining their yearlings because they worry about not having enough forage.
By retaining your cattle for a longer period of time, from birth until the pre-finishing stage (if you sell back into the auction system), or from birth until the cattle are grass-finished (if you market your own grass-finished beef), each calf produces far more beef during its time on your farm. This means you require a smaller cow/calf herd to produce the same pounds of beef per acre each year.
Many producers find that they actually produce more pounds of beef per acre by keeping their calves longer because the smaller cow/calf herd in the winter frees up additional grazing space in the summer, and the producer is maximizing the mouths (and gains) during the summer months when grass is cheap and plentiful.
And to further sweeten the deal for the farmer, by retaining the calves longer, the farmer winds up netting a higher profit because he/she is able to keep the profit margins (plus the saved auction commissions and trucking costs) that normally belong to the stocker or back-grounding operations who serve as the middlemen between cow/calf producer and feedlot or finishing operation. Also keep in mind that since your yearlings are born on your farm, you won't incur any of the veterinary and labour costs that stocker operations normally incur to prevent or treat shipping fever and settle their newly-purchased cattle that come from a wide range of unrelated herds.
You can learn more about how to graze your yearlings (stockers), how to plan your beef cattle marketing strategy according to the date that your cows give birth, and how to plan ahead for the financial repercussions of changing your calving schedule in the "Market Options", "Stocker Cattle", and "Planning for Change" chapters of Grass-fed Cattle.
Some producers will want to grass-finish their cattle and will want to develop their own marketing program for their grass-fed beef. These producers will need to match their breed choice to their climate, marketing strategy, and production system.
That last sentence sounds like a mouthful. Let me explain.
Every beef cattle breed has it's own ideal finishing weight which depends primarily on the frame size (bone structure) of the finished calf. This is the weight that steers and heifers reach when their bone structure has stopped growing and they have put on sufficient fat to be ready for slaughter. This means that the time it takes to finish cattle for slaughter depends on the frame size of each individual animal. This also means that the actual finishing date that each animal will be ready for slaughter depends on the date that your cows are scheduled to give birth.
In humid tropical climates where the grass essentially grows year-round, the frame size of cattle is of little importance to the producer since the grass is growing year-round. Heavier breeds take longer, lighter breeds finish sooner, but either way the cattle continue growing all the time. In this situation, the producer will pick the ideal breed(s) for their operation based on other environmental factors (i.e. heat tolerance, parasite resistance, etc.) and to suit their beef cattle marketing strategy.
In strongly seasonal climates (northern climates or tropical climates with distinct growing and dormant seasons) the length of time it take to finish cattle matters greatly because you are restricted by the short window of the ideal birthing season during the growing season at the start of the cattle's lives and a seasonally-constrained grass-finishing season at the other end of the beef cattle's lives. In this case you will either need a breed or breed combination that finishes before their second winter or your yearlings will need to be carried through a second (or possibly third) winter in order to reach the ideal finishing weight for their frame size.
Some beef cattle breeds, like Angus Cattle, finish as light as 1050 lbs at as little as 16 months of age. Producers in northern climates that want to finish their cattle on grass BEFORE the second winter on the farm need to choose from these smaller-framed, younger-finishing breeds.
Other breeds finish much heavier, such as Simmentals at around 1400 lbs and 24 months of age. Many Zebu breeds are even larger and can take as long as 36 months to reach their ideal finishing weight.
If you can extend your grazing season through most, or all, of the winter (despite a short growing season), and especially if you can maintain weight gains through most or all of the winter, then the larger breeds are not an obstacle even in northern climates.
The length of your finishing season will depend on your skill at creating high-quality winter pastures that retain their nutritional quality through the bulk of the long winter. Or, you can use annual grazing crops, like grazing corn, to extend your finishing season through the winter months, as discussed in the "Planning for Winter Grazing" chapter of Grass-fed Cattle.
If you want a short slaughter season in order to supply a seasonal beef market then you will need to choose a single breed or terminal crossbreed that finishes within a month or two of one another at the desired time of year that suits your beef cattle marketing program. On the other hand, if you want a finishing program that covers many months to supply a longer market season then you may want to use a combination of breeds that finish at different weights and times - the mixed-breed cattle herd.
There is no single answer to which frame size and breed choice will be best. It's simply a matter of calculating the timing of key events in your cattle production calendar based on when your cows give birth.
Two neighbors in a northern climate with long cold winters, with both of their cow herds scheduled to give birth on the same date during the growing season may nonetheless want completely different breeds. One farmer may want all her cattle to finish at the same time to suit her marketing program while the other wants his cattle to finish over a long finishing season to provide a more steady supply of grass-fed beef to his customers.
One farmer may be more skilled at winter grazing and be able to extend weight gains and the grass-finishing season through the bulk of the snow-covered winter while the other's skills may not have reached this level of experience.
Or, one farmer may use annual grazing crops, like grazing corn, or high-octane grass-finishing crops like alfalfa to continue their grass finishing season even after the pasture quality deteriorates too far for further grass-finishing on grass pastures while the other farmer may depends exclusively on his/her grass pasture for grass-finishing and consequently may have a shorter grass-finishing season.
There is no single right answer to what breed to use, only the right breed choice to match your marketing and production strategy in your particular climate. That means having a plan. And that plan begins with the date that your cows give birth - every other choice you make flows from this important date.
Your farm's business plan for raising beef cattle needs to encompass:
Your beef cattle management plan needs to address every step of the way from birth through slaughter. And you need to pre-plan the ramifications of every change you make to this program before you make any changes.
Switching to calve during the growing season is one of the most important and wide-reaching changes that you can make to your business. It affects everything; the health of your calves in the calving pasture, the fertility of your cows, the nutritional needs of your cow/calf herd, the breed choices you make to suit your beef cattle marketing program, and even the very marketing strategy (and sales date that you will use to sell your beef.
The date that your cows give birth is the anchor of a very long line up of dominoes working in unison.
You can learn more about how to design your beef cattle marketing strategy to suit your climate and how to transition your cow herd to give birth during the growing season, as well as get guidance on how to plan your annual production calendar around your calving schedule in the "Market Options", "The Cattle Year on Grass", and "Your Cattle Year on Grass" chapters of Grass-fed Cattle.
And when you're ready to start planning your cattle farm, check out my book: Grass-Fed Cattle: How to Produce and Market Natural Beef