Jordan Thomas says fall calving might look appealing, but it is not for everyone.
“Before you decide anything, you really need to evaluate fall calving and see if it fits in your operation,” says Thomas, Extension beef specialist with the University of Missouri.
“For example, in southern Missouri it’s almost silly not to do it with the production system there. But in northern Missouri and southern Iowa, you are going to have challenges with the lactation you will need over the winter.”
Thomas says most producers choose a late-winter or early-spring calving system, primarily because that is the ideal time for it.
“Mother Nature says we have spring calving for a reason, and that’s for better survival of the offspring,” he says. “It’s more natural for that cow to give birth in the spring.”
One of the main issues, he says, is feed. Lactating cows have higher nutritional requirements, so access to pasture helps keep feed costs down. Cows who give birth in the fall will be lactating during the coldest months, which likely will require a good deal of supplemented feed.
“There are extra costs involved with fall calving,” Thomas says. “For some that is stockpiling forage, and for others it’s supplemental feed.”
The timing of fall calving is also something to consider, says Patrick Wall, Iowa State University Extension beef specialist in Knoxville, Iowa.
He says some producers may choose to start in August. While heat stress could be an issue, it gives that calf additional time to put on weight and be able to better handle winter.
“One issue could be having to graze rank tall fescue at that time, so if that’s a problem, you may have to look at September or October,” Wall says.
He says fall calves are generally smaller, which reduces the risk of calving difficulty. And calves are born on clean grass, which reduces disease pressure.
He says while some producers make the decision to split their herd for management reasons, most do it out of necessity.
“For some, you might have a lot of open cows from a poor breeding period, so you might want to convert those into a fall-calving herd,” Wall says. “They don’t want to take that hit on their investment, so they take a different route.”
The size of the fall calving herd should also be large enough to allow producers to sell weaned calves in a larger group.
“You don’t want it so small that you are only selling a few calves,” Wall says. “You want to be able to sell them in a larger load, so you don’t have to take any sort of discount.”
The health protocol is similar for spring- and fall-calving herds, although Wall says there will be more trips by the veterinarian since there are two completely separate herds.
Thomas says increased income needs to be a goal as well.
“You might be able to market calves at a time where they are more valuable,” he says. “The extra income will offset the increased costs of fall calving.”
Thomas recommends using lower-
maintenance cows in a fall herd.
“To get that extra milk, those cows have increased nutrient requirements,” he says. “A more moderate milking cow is going to be much less expensive to maintain in a fall herd.”
Ultimately, Thomas says it needs to come down to management.
“They always says it’s better to be excellent at one thing than just good at two things,” he says. “You need to be really critical when you are thinking about fall calving. Just make sure it’s right for you.”