The arguments for green-grass calving can be pretty convincing, especially the economics.
Ken Nimrick of western Illinois claims his calving season in mid-May through June saves him $100-200 in total feed costs per cow per year.
British Columbia rancher Clint Thompson makes similar claims, saying that even with calves 100 pounds lighter than their winter-born counterparts, his calves are more profitable than the six-weights ever were.
Calving in winter and early spring really came about because of our corn-finishing feedlot system. We bred cows earlier to get larger, heavier calves to send to the feedyard in the fall. It was quite simple in that day – more pounds equaled more money. But as Thompson has proven, that isn't always the case anymore. In Nimrick's case, doing something different is sometimes more wise financially.
Today's volatile feed and fuel market have some producers bucking what has come to be viewed as ranching tradition. They are returning to an even older way of doing things, calving in late spring and early summer.
There is no calving date which fits every ranch but the economics of calving later in the spring of the year, also known as green-grass calving, make a compelling argument in favor of this management practice.
Further, several research studies from land-grant universities such as Colorado State University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have shown that nearly every time, green-grass calving offers the lowest input costs per cow, showing significant savings in both labor and feed required. (For more on this, see March 2013 Fodder for Thought blogs on www.BeefProducer.com.)
In these studies, even the heavier weights of earlier-born calves could not outrun the cost of bigger feed bills. In addition, calving later in the year was more profitable for beef producers who retained ownership through the feeding phase.
University research can only tell us so much, though. To get the real skinny on green-grass calving you need to talk to the producers actually doing it; people like Ken Nimrick. He says his cost reductions result from three important factors:
A cow's nutrient requirements increase by 1.5 to 2 times during lactation. Grazing green grass in May and June during calving is lower cost for him than winter feed (even stockpiled forage). This also allows for the cow's nutrient requirements to sync up with the time of year when most forages are at their maximum nutritional value.
His cows are in mid-gestation during the dead of winter, when most everyone else is calving. This means that their nutrient requirements are at their lowest, which reduces feed required during a time of the year when harvested feed is most costly and weather generally is most adverse.
During the winter months feed can be rationed so that even when cows lose some body condition they easily regain enough on low-cost spring grass so they are in optimum condition for calving ease and vigor. This is in addition to strong colostrum production and a good breed-back. This is of course all dependent on whether they went into the winter with adequate body condition so they are able to meet part of their nutrient requirements using body fat reserves during the winter months.
In addition to the economic benefits, the added ease of management in a green-grass calving system appeals to some ranchers. One such rancher is Dennis Hoyle of north-central South Dakota.
"I will keep this simple," says Hoyle. "I check cows twice a day most days. I used to check every two hours depending on the weather [when we were still winter calving]. I sleep at night now."
Hoyle will tell you that in the 15 years since he switched to green-grass calving he has only treated three cases of scours. He no longer loses calves to bad weather nor has to worry about frozen ears, feet, or tails.
He says, "Basically, if I had to go back to the way I used to do it I would quit raising cattle."
That is a profound statement and resonates with many of the testimonies of ranchers who have changed their calving dates to match up with their grass production cycle.
Whatever the reasoning, it appears that slowly more and more producers are seeing value in green-grass calving and breaking industry traditions to favor a lower-input ranching philosophy.
It's hard to say whether green-grass calving will someday become an industry norm like winter calving is today. Ultimately, the move could be more about attitude than net profit.
Canadian beef producer Clint Thompson says: "We have to keep reminding ourselves as we start changing, what we are doing is completing a paradigm shift."
"It's important we monitor our progress along the way and realize at times that we simply can no longer always use the same tools to measure our success we used before, because in most cases they just don't apply anymore."
It's an animal welfare issue, too
One of the most surprising reasons some ranchers give for green-grass calving is that of animal welfare concerns.
Nebraska rancher Kevin Fulton made the decision to change to green-grass calving when he realized he needed greater transparency of animal husbandry practices because of the increase in numbers of visitors to his farm.
"We started to question some of our practices and subsequently began to make changes accordingly when we felt [farm visitors] questions were valid," Fulton says. "Shifting our calving season is just one thing we changed."
He adds it was common for customers to ask, "Why would you plan to have you cows calve in the middle of potentially the harshest weather possible?"
"I felt I didn't have a reasonable answer that would make me look credible as a farmer/rancher who really cared about his animals," says Fulton. "So we changed."
In the end, Fulton will tell you he believes this change was for the best, not only because of the increased efficiency of his business, but it better fit his holistic management philosophy.
Most important, perhaps, he feels that green-grass calving aligns best with his philosophy to promote and raise livestock using the most humane practices possible.Bussard writes from Bozeman, Mont.