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Deciding when to calve beef cows in Wisconsin depends upon two things.

  • the market for the animal raised
  • the farm’s resources — environment and facilities

Management of the breeding season, body-condition scores, herd-vaccination programs and neonatal care are all required for a successful calving season, regardless of the time chosen. Partial budgeting is a financial tool to use when considering a change in calving season. Equipment used during the calving season must also be prepared. Calving sets the cycle of breeding and husbandry tasks. Keep personal lifestyle goals in mind when setting the calving season.

Calve to meet market goals

Cows and bulls decide their calving seasons when they live with each other year-round. Their owners then gather calves once per year and send them to market, taking the price given.

Cow-calf producers usually manage herd breeding to target a calving season. The targeted calving season in turn helps producers reach a market date for the animals they raise, while capturing a price that’s greater than their cost of production. Examination of trends reveals a seasonality of the beef markets.

“Cattle prices, influenced by changes in cattle slaughter, supplies of other meat and poultry products, demands for cattle for feeding or grazing, and consumer demands for beef, vary over the course of a year,” said Lee Schulz, economist for Iowa State University and Extension Outreach. “If these changes are repeated from year to year, there may be seasonal patterns of price changes that are somewhat consistent and predictable. Different classes of cattle have somewhat different seasonal patterns of marketing and prices.”

Seasonal Price Indexes, compiled using data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Marketing Service, are analyzed and published by the Livestock Marketing Information Center.

Two kinds of information are reflected in the seasonal-price indexes.

  • The first is an average-price index for each month. The average index shows the average relationship of prices in a particular month to the average for the years represented.
  • The second type of information, a variability range, is created by plotting the maximum and minimum price indexes for each month. It provides an indication of the reliability of the price index for a particular month. It’s based on the variability of prices for a specified month during the years included in the index calculation. Specifically points on the charts that are more than or less than a particular monthly index indicate the range where the index for that month could be expected to fall 68 percent of the time. The 68-percent range statistically represents the average plus-one or minus-one standard deviation. The price in a particular year will likely be in that range about two-thirds of the time. The smaller the variability factor — the closer the points are to the index value — the more reliable the monthly index. Keep in mind the trends depicted are influenced by the number of years and which years are included in the analysis.

The 2009-2017 indexes illustrate that the lowest index for fed steers — finished cattle — occurred in December, with the greatest in April. Calving season influences the ability to make a finished weight in April. But the finished steer’s weight will depend on frame score, muscling and feeding-management program.

Calf harvesting varies

In his 2011 white paper, “Animal Age, Physiological Maturity, and Associated Effects on Beef Tenderness,” J. Daryl Tatum of Colorado State University stated that “in grain-fed beef-production systems, beef calves — steers and heifers — typically are reared on pastures with their dams until they are 5 to 8 months old. After weaning calves either are placed in feedlots immediately for grain finishing as ‘calf-feds’ or grown for a period of time on forage-based diets until they are 12 to 18 months old, before placement in feedlots for finishing as ‘yearlings’ or ‘long-yearlings.’

“Grain-finished cattle produced in the United States normally are harvested between 12 and 24 months of age. Calf-feds typically are 12 to 16 months old at harvest, depending upon length of the finishing period. Most cattle fed as yearlings or long-yearlings are harvested between 16 and 24 months of age.”

The least 500-to-600-pound feeder-calf price occurred in October, with the best average index occurring in March. Benchmarks indicate the calf should be weaned at 575 pounds when it’s 205 days of age — 6.8 months. That benchmark indicates an average daily gain of 2.4 pounds for those calves weighing 80 pounds at birth. Calves need to be castrated or dehorned, weaned and preconditioned 45 days prior to selling in March.

Calves born in June or July could be weaned in January with the previously listed benchmarks and preconditioned to March. Alternatively June- or July-born calves could be weaned earlier at 4 months of age, at 450 pounds, and fed to gain 2 pounds per day for sale in March. It may be more economical for early-weaned calves to be housed and fed separately from their mothers.

The least 700-to-800-pound feeder-steer index occurred in February, and was best in July. June- to July-born calves gaining 2 pounds per day would weigh 700 to 800 pounds by the following July. The calving season may be determined after deciding how long the calf needs to nurse. The weaning date should be set to management’s abilities with strict attention paid to the nutritional and health needs of the weaned calf.

Consider when to breed

June-born heifer calves intended for the seed-stock market are ready for breeding in October of the following year. Confirmed pregnant by the proceeding January, they may then be sold to calve in June at 2 years of age. A benchmark goal is to have heifers pregnant by 14 months of age, calving with their first calf by 24 months of age.

The June-born bull calf is ready for its first breeding season when it’s 15 months old, in September of the following year, marketable to those using a fall mating season. Extra feeding and yardage costs occur to maintain that bull until the following spring mating season, when he’s about 21 months old. To have yearling bulls and older bulls marketable during the spring mating season requires their being born in the winter of the first and second years prior to the current year.

Look for butcher facilities

Those selling finished cattle directly to consumers need to keep accessibility to butcher facilities in mind. Currently in Wisconsin there’s a shortage of local small processors. Access is greatly reduced during fair and deer-hunting seasons. Nutritional management must be critically timed to available butcher dates when harvesting 18- to 24-month old cattle during the busy season. Consider partnering with a butcher shop to harvest younger cattle January through July. Calf-feds are typically 12 to 16 months old at harvest.

Calve with the farm’s resources in mind

Complementing the farm’s resources is the second consideration for determining the calving season. Management techniques are then utilized to reach a market condition at a certain date. The calving season is often based upon the farm’s forage production — pasture, stockpiling and harveting for winter feed.

Other environmental aspects should be considered when setting the calving season.

  • availability of buildings during inclement weather
  • natural shelter provided by woods or windbreaks
  • water availability
  • lay of the land
  • drainage options
  • muddiness

Sage beef producers have been heard to say, “Calve on snow or on green grass; do not calve in the mud!” Two mud seasons occur in Wisconsin — when fall changes to winter and as winter gives way to spring. Particularly muddy months vary across the state.

Mud can be managed with proper attention to positioning calving areas on the best-drained slopes and using appropriate stocking density. Land Conservation and the Natural Resource Conservation Service have advisers and resources available to renovate barn lots, and to site and build areas that drain properly.

Keep in mind the unpredictability of “unseasonal” rain and snow events. Blizzards in April and intense rains are witnessed somewhere in Wisconsin every month. Even though those events are sporadic, plan for cattle comfort as well as feed inventory and delivery during such events.

Barns and maternity pens — sized to a minimum of 120 square feet per one calving cow — may be used during the calving season. Patrick Gunn, beef-cattle technical consultant with Iowa State University, cited previous research that found mothering, dam-calf bonding and colostrum intake reduced when the calving area decreased from pasture to a calving pen. Of calves lost at birth, 80 percent are “normal” and likely died due to delayed calving. Using a pen facilitates human intervention during difficult calvings.

Don’t house multiple cattle in maternity pens because that increases pathogen levels in that area. By definition a maternity pen holds one calving cow. Move a calving cow into a maternity pen when the water bag or feet of the calf are showing. Don’t move ahead of Stage II labor because it will interrupt progress, which is harmful for both calf and mother.

Move pairs out as soon as they have bonded, the calf is up and has nursed. Multiple heifer-maternity pens may be needed to hold heifer-calf pairs together longer. Sometimes heifers, especially after a difficult delivery, will need extra bonding time in order to learn mothering skills.

After each calving scrape the pen down completely; then lime and re-bed. Once the calving season is finished, or if possible during a break in the action, consider scrubbing the maternity pen. Don’t use a pressure washer because it will aerosolize germs throughout the building. Water, soaps and acid detergents with brushes or foaming devices are the tools needed to scrub the areas.

Keep environments

clean, calves together

Keys to successful calf health include calves born into clean environments and living with stable similarly aged herd mates. When using the Sandhills Calving System of calving pasture and paddocks, all calving cattle start together in the first paddock. After two weeks those who haven’t yet calved move to the second paddock. Each subsequent week non-fresh cattle move to the next paddock. The first paddock is the largest; pairs are in it the longest. The result is multiple paddocks containing calves that are aged within one week of each other. The herd can be co-mingled back together once the youngest calf turns 8 weeks old.

Whether using the Sandhills System or not, well-drained sloping calving areas are sized at 250 to 300 square feet per cow-calf pair. Flat outdoor lots would need to be 500 to 800 square feet per cow-calf pair.

David Smith of the department of veterinary and biomedical sciences for the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln said, “Development of a ranch-specific plan for implementing the Sandhills Calving System must take place well in advance of the calving season, in some circumstances in consultation with a range specialist. Available pastures must be identified and their use coordinated with the calving schedule. Water, feed, shelter and anticipated weather conditions must be considered. The size of the pastures should be matched to the number of calves expected to be born in a given week. Use of the pastures must not be damaging to later grazing.”

Consider changing

calving seasons

Calculating the costs and opportunities for changing the time of calving will provide clearer decision making. That process is known as partial budgeting. A partial budget is a means to evaluate the expected impact on profit from relatively small changes in an operation.

To determine net profitability, first determine the value of four questions.

  • What increases in profits will result from additional revenues?
  • What increases in profits will result from eliminated or reduced costs?
  • What decreases in profits will result from additional costs?
  • What decreases in profits will result from eliminated or reduced revenues?

Net profitability is calculated by subtracting the decreases in expected profit — C+D — from the expected increases — A+B.

Feed is the largest cost center. Hay costs may be reduced when more pasture is used. But additional costs are garnered by pasture improvement and fencing. A hay inventory is needed when pasture is dormant. Less pasture may be needed when calving in the winter, and may result in more hay to sell off the farm as well as reduced fencing costs.

A partial budget will give producers a number that shows the net profit or loss from a change. But a good manager then has other factors to consider before making a decision.

  • accuracy of the estimates
  • the risk of being wrong with the estimates
  • other alternatives may be even better than the one considered
  • impact on debt structure and leverage
  • impact on cash flow
  • impact on cash reserves
  • impact on repayment ability
  • impact on quality of life

Management is key regardless of season

Matt Stockton, an associate professor with the agricultural-economics department at the University of Nebraska, summarized the determination of calving season.

“Consideration of an alternative-calving season is a complex decision,” he said. “The impact of this one choice of when to calve includes the consideration of many changes in management, resource usage and allocation, benchmark performances and marketing strategies.”

Think carefully about the motivation behind changing a herd’s calving season. Fix the things that contribute most to the problem and manage the others. Management changes alone may be enough to help producers reach goals while keeping the current season. Regardless of the season used, management contributes to success, just as management contributes to successful herd production.

Successful calving seasons are benchmarked for the cow-calf industry. One fundamental management practice to ensure a successful calving season is to have a defined and narrow one. Short defined calving seasons hinge upon defined breeding seasons. Heifers and cows must be fed to the correct body-condition score and participate in sound vaccination programs in order to have successful breeding and calving seasons.

When defining success as having a calf survive its calving season and thrive to weaning, particular attention must be paid to the calving environment and to neonatal health practices. Calving equipment and supplies must be prepared before the first calf is born.

Visit fyi.extension.wisc.edu for more information.

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Dr. Sandy Stuttgen, veterinarian, has served since 2007 as an agriculture agent for the University of Wisconsin-Extension in Taylor County. Her programming has focused on dairy and beef nutrition, reproduction, facilities, bio-security and health.