Missouri's winter has been brutal, especially in early January and February when temperatures dipped down below zero. For beef producers with fall-calving herds, the extreme cold temperatures, snow and ice posed challenges. This year required extra care for calves and cows alike.
Still, cattleman Chris Derks would rather risk a few wild winters after fall calving than rely on cows breeding during the state's sultry summers. As a result, the Gentry County farmer opts to split calving between seasons.
Derks started fall calving 20 years ago for the same reason many Missouri producers do. Trying to get two-year-old heifers to breed back in the heat and fescue that dominates Missouri pastures was becoming a headache.
"What do we do with these open two-year-olds? We didn't want to just sell them," he says. "We had a lot of money invested in them."
Instead of selling them or holding on to them to breed the following spring, the heifers were bred to calve in the fall, making them only six months behind rather than a year. Derks, who raises 600 head of cows, splits his herd into 250 cows calving in spring, and 350 calving in fall. This gives him another marketing opportunity and gives twice as many calves out of a bull.
Calve in better conditions
Derks says the secret to fall calving is breeding cows to calve in a 60-day window in September and October. This way, calves don't fight the cold, wet, often unpredictable weather of early spring. After Labor Day, the weather usually starts to cool off, becoming ideal for calves.
On the other hand, calving too late risks exposure to winter weather.
"If the calf is born on the 15th of November, and we have bad weather hit the 15th of December, it can be hard on that month-old calf," Derks says. "If he's born in October, he's got two months of age. A two-month old calf can handle those changes in the weather a lot better."
Market when prices peak
Calves born in September or October are less likely to contract sicknesses that occur with wet, muddy ground, like pneumonia or scours. Because fall-born calves don't have as many issues with sickness, they don't require antibiotics as often. This is important for Derks, who markets his fall-born calves through Meyers Natural Angus of Colorado, with the exception of heifers he is retaining.
"It's another marketing opportunity and a chance to get some added premiums," he says. "It's really hard to keep them natural if they're spring-born."
Fall-born calves can be marketed in spring, when prices and demand are usually highest, but there aren't many calves being sold.
"Grass is getting away from guys, and they need calves to put on that grass. There aren't many of them out there. It opens up a whole new market for us," Derks explains. "Those spring calves are already gone, they're in the feedlot or on grass."