Christmas Shopping and the Calving Season

John F. Grimes, OSU Extension Beef Coordinator

I have to confess that I am a master procrastinator when it comes to Christmas holiday shopping. I admittedly do not like “Black Friday” shopping and do not perform well under the stress of last-minute shopping. There are tools available such as the internet available to assist shopping-challenged consumers such as me. However, the fact remains that there are potential long-term ramifications from poor planning when it comes to Christmas shopping!

If you think about it, there are some parallels that can be drawn between the Christmas shopping season and calving season for cow-calf producers. There is a certain level of excitement associated with giving or receiving a special gift. Similarly, there can be great excitement with seeing that newborn calf that results from many hours of work and planning. Unfortunately, as with shopping, there can be serious fallout from a poorly planned calving season.

Depending upon, when your calving season begins, you may or may not have enough time to implement practices that can minimize problems during calving season and the subsequent breeding season. At this point in time, you are locked in to a particular calving season for 2013 and more than likely know what harvested forages you have available. If your calving season begins in January, you have fewer options available now to make changes compared to a producer that starts calving 2-4 months from now.

In nearly every cow-calf operation, harvested forages are the primary diet component winter rations. Yet, we typically know less about the forages we feed than any other feed and health products consumed by the cow herd. We often want to look at the feed or drug labels of products that are purchased but don’t seem overly concerned about the quality of the forages that are consumed by the herd. It is easy to over-value hay that looks good in the bale while we may have forgotten how mature it was when it was packaged.

If you have not done so, send forage samples in for nutritional analysis immediately in order to assist with ration balancing for late gestation or early lactation females. Poor quality hay cannot be improved by feeding more poor quality hay. If your hay is of poor quality, you may have to feed some corn or grain by-products to meet the needs of a mature or growing female under production stress. It is vitally important that we maintain adequate body condition scores during critical production times. Body Condition Scores (BCS) ranging from 5-6 are considered ideal during late gestation or early lactation in this scoring system where 1 is thin and 9 is obese. Large quantities of university research have documented that poor nutrition and declining BCS during late gestation or early lactation can have devastating negative impacts on conception rates in the following breeding season. Remember the old adage, “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later!”

Competition from grain production for land and prices for grains and alternative feeds are making forages more expensive than ever. Harvested forages have been stored for some time now and little can be changed to reduce storage losses for this season. Take time to analyze your storage techniques to reduce future losses. University research has documented approximately 20% losses on unprotected round bales stored on the ground. A recent Oklahoma State study documented a nearly 16% variation in hay feeding losses based on hay ring design. These hay losses equate to real economic value when beef-quality hay prices are routinely seen at $60-$100 per ton at present in Ohio.

The very nature of cow-calf production in Ohio can cause significant problems for first-calf heifers when they are managed with mature cows. Many herds are small enough in numbers and run on limited acreage which makes it difficult to manage first-calf heifers separately from the rest of the herd. Think of what is being asked of the two-year-old female. She has is still growing and yet to reach her mature size, she delivers a calf, lactates for the first time, and is expected to breed back in a timely fashion. These females should not be asked to compete in the “pecking order” with mature cows. These first-calf heifers should be managed separately from the rest of the herd and should receive the highest quality feedstuffs at the producer’s disposal.

Raising your own replacement females is an expensive and time-consuming enterprise that requires extra management and commitment from the producer. If you are not willing to do it correctly, don’t do it! The proper number of heifers to keep in order to justify a separate group will vary from operation to operation. If you are finding the management of young replacements too difficult, consider purchasing properly developed bred heifers or young mature cows for your operation.

The timing and duration of the calving season can greatly impact well-designed health and nutrition programs. The timing of your calving season will likely be determined by the scope of your particular farming operation and/or off-farm employment. In my opinion, the calving season you choose should be determined by the time you can achieve the highest percentage of your females bred and the highest percentage of calves delivered alive. These two criteria do not always align perfectly but find an optimum balance for your situation. Regardless of when you choose to calve, keep the length of calving season as short as possible. You will have a very difficult time convincing me that you can justify any calving season longer than 90 days. Everything involved with managing the cow herd and calf crop from reproduction, herd health, nutrition, and marketing becomes much more difficult with a longer calving season.

As we get ready to move into 2013, make a commitment to objectively analyze the upcoming calving season. What things are done correctly and where is there room for improvement? If there issues that need to be addressed, don’t be afraid to make changes. Remember, poor planning can yield to long-term ramifications during the Christmas season AND the calving season!