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.