Structuring a calving program that best suites farm and ranch operations can be challenging. Of primary concern are: weather, labor, market timing, and animal health considerations, with weather possibly being the most volatile factor, as it ranges from challenging to catastrophic in some years. Evaluating alternatives that can improve calving conditions and quality of life, while also reducing financial and health risks is an important step in assessing a ranch or farm through a holistic framework. Each agricultural operation is unique and thus no one resource can provide all the necessary information. However, when evaluating calving programs, five core topics emerge for careful consideration. These are:
- When and where to calve.
- Managing the cow.
- Farm and ranch resource allocation.
- People/human resources.
The questions below provide a framework for considering options in these five core topics and are gleaned from a multitude of resources, both academic and experiential from producers who have carefully assessed their calving programs against whole ranch, family, and financial objectives.
Some Important Considerations When Evaluating Changes to Calving Dates
- Assessing your own need for change: Do you have a problem? Some indicators that a problem exist could be stress, fatigue, or minimal profits. If you find yourself wondering ‘how do they do it’ when looking at a neighbor, it may be time to evaluate your own need for change. Perhaps the best way to assess the need for change is to engage a trusted friend and ask them to give you an honest opinion about your operational structure.
- Evaluate the ‘drivers’ of your current system: Why do you do what you do? For instance, are you calving in March and April snow and mud so you can plant crops in May? Is this approach still necessary, or can calving later reduce calving labor needs?
- Financial resources: Is your operation unduly influenced by your lender? If so, it may be time to consider restructuring your annual financial plan.
- Existing calving conditions (environmental): Taking a step back, are you happy with the conditions you normally calve in when considering animal health/cleanliness, ground conditions, input expenses, or pasture condition?
- Existing calving conditions (financial inputs): What is your calving program costing you? Barn maintenance, electricity, bedding, vet bills, or other overhead like machinery repairs are real expenses. Can these be avoided if you change your calving season?
- Existing resource limitations: Are there structural, access, human, machinery, or land resources that significantly impact your current calving program? Are you expending financial or other resources to overcome these limitations? Would a change in calving dates potentially reduce or eliminate some or all of these limitations?
- Breeding and marketing program: Are there marketing options/opportunities to consider that better fit your resource concerns? Would a change in breeding/calving dates allow you to capitalize on a different market or size of calf?
- Calving pastures: Do you have reasonable access to existing pastures under your current calving model? Would an alternative calving date create improved opportunity for animal health and nutrition or improved long-term pasture management? Are you forced to consider a ‘sacrifice pasture’ in your grazing or calving plan? Does your fall pasture management limit your spring calving options? Can you adjust your operation to ensure dry, healthy, nutrient rich calving pastures?
- Creating calving pastures (native and non-native): Can you adjust your land resources to create improved access to healthy calving pastures, whether native grasslands or by planting cropland to resilient, non-invasive, permanent cover?
- Cow health, exercise, nutrition, calving ease: Would there be a benefit to calving ease in your herd with improved exercise and nutrition?
- Human resources/labor: Can calving at a different time reduce your labor commitments and family well-being?
- Human health/stress/family: Is calving stressful on your personal or family health?
- Plan (business plan, drought plan, or other whole-systems plan): Have you evaluated your entire operation in the context of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats? Have you considered alternative livestock systems that may better fit your available resources?
- Consider natural patterns: Mother Nature generally has things figured out. Assess when most of the native animals in your area have their young and consider the pros and cons of moving your system closer to those dates.