September 30, 2005 | By: Laura Skillman
PRINCETON, Ky.

In some areas of Kentucky, cattle producers are showing a growing interest in switching to or adding a fall calving season to their beef cattle operation.

Traditionally, Kentucky cattlemen have used spring for calving, with cattle sometimes giving birth in less than desirable weather conditions. With the increased interest in fall calving, researchers at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture underwent a multiyear project looking at the advantages and disadvantages of both systems.

“Logically, you can see some advantages to fall calving, and better weather conditions is what attracts most people,” said Kevin Laurent, UK Extension animal sciences associate. “Especially, if you’ve been through a wet, cold February and March resulting in a round of bad spring calving, then September and October look attractive.”

Additionally, a producer can breed cattle grazing stockpiled fescue in November and December when the forage is at its nutritional peak. Fescue is again in a growth cycle from April to June, coinciding with the peak cattle inventory for fall calving herds in terms of number and size of animals.

Historical data also give a marketing advantage to fall-born calves.

“There is a definite advantage of selling fall-born calves in the spring and early summer,” Laurent said. “That’s partly because most producers calve in the spring, which means a larger number of calves are for sale in the fall.”

A disadvantage of fall calving is a producer will need to provide supplemental feed for the calves in the winter. No matter the forage program a producer has, January through March are difficult times for livestock and the calves are going to need more than just their mother’s milk to thrive.

Feed consumption will also be higher in a fall calving system because a nursing cow in a cold environment is going to consume more feed.

To compare the two calving systems, UK researchers studied four tests of 20 cows each for three years. There were two groups each of fall calving cows and spring calving cows, with one group of each on low endophyte fescue and one on high endophyte fescue. Sept. 15 to Nov. 15 were the fall calving dates and Feb. 15 to April 15 were spring calving dates. Winter feeding programs consisted of stockpiled fescue and hay from November to January. From February through April, every cow received 50 pounds of corn silage with no additional feed for the calves.

There was no difference in pregnancy rates between groups, but actual weaning weights for spring-born calves were 20 pounds heavier. Winter hay costs were nearly double for fall herds. But, calf mortality rates were 1.8 percent in fall compared to 6.8 percent in spring.

“Basically, on pregnancy rates the jury is still out,” Laurent said. “Weaning weight advantage is to spring, feed costs advantage is to spring. Calf mortality is a huge advantage to fall due basically to better weather conditions. Fall also has the marketing advantage with calves selling some 5- to 6-percent higher than the spring-born calves.

Based on the UK trials, a preliminary economic analysis shows that a producer can net approximately $20 more per calf by calving in the fall. 

Laurent said there are not a lot of advantages one way or the other, and the decision boils down to personal choice.

“The No. 1 factor to consider during the calving season is labor,” he said. “If you work off the farm and can’t be there when weather conditions are poor and cattle are calving, then that’s an issue. On the other hand, if you are a grain farmer, September and October are your busiest times, and you may hardly have time to even drive through the pasture to see what’s happening in your herd.”

Fall calving requires a good forage program. If a producer doesn’t have an above- average forage program or silage, he may not want to calve in the fall. In addition, there are some good, inexpensive feedstuffs such as grain byproducts (e.g., soyhulls, corn gluten, distillers grains) that can be used to creep feed calves from January through March. But if a producer doesn’t want to deal with this extra labor, especially in muddy conditions, then they might not want to fall calve.

UK researchers are planning a follow-up study with less reliance on silage and more on forages, including warm-season grasses, Laurent said.

Contact: 

Writer: Laura Skillman 270-365-7541 ext. 278

Contact: Kevin Laurent, 270-365-7541 ext. 226