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Rethinking cattle

The stars may be aligned for you to make a fundamental change in your cow-herd management.

That's the message Rob Kallenbach, University of Missouri forage specialist, has for cow/calf beef producers. His call is for you to consider switching to fall calving, keeping cow/calf pairs through the winter, and grazing calves along with their mamas the next spring and early summer. You'll use pastures more intensively at the one time of year when you've usually got grass to spare.

There's more to this idea than just making better use of pastures. The star alignment results from what has happened to feed costs and the current status of market incentives for feedlot-ready steers and heifers. Feedlots want heavier calves that require a shorter grain-feeding cycle. The marketplace now reflects that.

Given that, your grass-based cattle business can actually benefit from the run-up in grain prices, he says. If you calve in the fall and graze through the following spring and early summer, you'll sell heavier calves at a time when feeder prices are at the best for the year.

Most pounds, few inputs

“My goal is to keep the cost per pound of beef produced as low as possible,” says Kallenbach. “You do that by using your own pastures – aggressively when the grass is plentiful in the spring and early summer, and restricted when limited in late summer and winter.”

You can do this with a spring calving herd as well as by keeping calves until they're yearlings to graze them. That's a long time to keep calves, and it may include a lot of winter feed. You can also buy stocker calves in the spring and graze them until your pastures run out. But that means another off-farm purchase with potential health issues.

With fall calving, your own calves are ready to go on grass the next spring about the time you would normally wean them. “It's a ready-made supply of stocker cattle built into the system,” says Kallenbach.

And cows are bred starting around Thanksgiving to calve the following September, which is usually a perfect time to calve, weatherwise and healthwise. The cow/calf pairs are carried through the fall on forages stockpiled from summer and crop-residue gleanings.

Winter feeding cow/calf pairs can be tricky and may be your biggest point of reluctance about fall calving. When calves are big enough to graze and are right in rebreeding season, winter sets in. Feed supplies become limited or expensive.

Kallenbach says to hold on. Cows nursing a calf through winter don't necessarily need a large amount of or expensive feed.

To prove the point, tests were conducted through two winters in Missouri with four different feeding levels of stockpiled tall fescue. Cows on all feeding levels lost weight through the winter, which is normal for fall-calving cows. Animals on the most restrictive feeding level lost the most weight (by about 50 pounds per head). By the following July (after the spring grazing season), all cows were back to the same average weight and body condition score.

Calves catch up, too

It's a similar story on weight gain of calves. Those on the most limited feed gained less weight during the winter by about .2 pounds per day. But those calves gained weight faster when they went on spring grass and caught up.

“You couldn't tell the calves apart by spring, and you couldn't tell the cows apart by summer,” says Kallenbach. His bottom line is you can carry fall-calving pairs through the winter on a limited forage program and not hinder the productivity of the cows or calves.

The major productivity advantage of a fall-calving approach is when you get to spring and your cool-season grasses are most lush. You've got two groups of animals to graze: the cows and the calves.

You don't even need to wean the calves; just graze them together, Kallenbach suggests. “By summer the calves will probably wean themselves. You may get some increased value from no weaning stress.”

By early July, you sell the calves. Most years, that's when pastures start to slow down in the heat. It's a good time to cut the animal load and to begin stockpiling forages for the upcoming year's fall-calving cycle.

No cheap feedlot gains

The other part of his approach is the market equation. When feed was cheaper, lighter calves were rewarded because feedlots could put on profitable pounds with grain. Those days appear to be history. Now the value gap between light calves (500 pounds and less) and heavier feeders (700 pounds and up) has shrunk, meaning it pays to add extra grass-produced weight.

The final market factor is that feeder calf prices tend to peak in spring. That peak continues until about July, then slides $7 to $10 per cwt into the fall, when most producers sell spring calves.

The goal of the system is to avoid a fall price slump, to sell more total pounds of beef, to maximize use of homegrown forages, and to minimize purchased feed inputs.

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Rob Kallenbach kallenbachr@missouri.ed

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