When is the best time to calve in Wisconsin?

Sandy Stuttgen
Cow-calf producers will need to carefully look at their own situation and resources to determine what will work best for them in terms of calving times.

Cow-calf producers in Wisconsin who have completed their 2019 calving season are now turning their thoughts to the breeding season. Pause a few minutes to reflect on this and previous calving seasons. Is your routine the best use of all of your farm’s resources and your time? Your chosen calving season dictates your management calendar. Which months of the year would you prefer to handle cattle for vaccinating, AI breeding, calving, castrating and weaning?

Would changing your calving season improve your market timing, based on price seasonality? Deciding your target market weight influences when to calve beef cows. Count backward from the desired market date and calf weight to determine the cow’s breeding date. Factor in your availability and the value of your time to manage all the tasks involved in the cow-calf life cycle.

For example, benchmarks indicate the calf should be about 575 205 days of age (6.8 months). Generally, higher prices are paid for preconditioned 400-600 lb. calves in early spring, rather than the fall. To reach this benchmark and potentially a higher price, these calves would need to be born, castrated or dehorned, weaned, and preconditioned 45 days (receiving respiratory vaccines and dewormers) prior to selling them in the spring.

These same calves could be fed to increase their weight to 700-800 by July, a month that often sees higher prices paid by feedlots that will finish these calves. To target a 750 lb. weight on July 1, using the benchmarks above, the calf would likely have to be born in the October, weaned in May and grazed for 60 days on lush, fast growing pasture, with an average daily gain of three pounds while on grass.

The calving season is often based upon the farm’s forage production (pasture, stockpiling, and harvested for winter feed). Calves less than three months of age derive the majority of their nutrition from nursing, not directly from grazing. One can argue it does not matter if it’s just pregnant cows or cow/calf pairs grazing during Wisconsin’s spring and summer. What matters is how you can best manage forage and other feed resources to be able to optimize nutrition to maintain the female’s body condition score (BCS) and growth of the fetus, nursing calf and weaned calf over the course of the year.

At the University of Wisconsin-Division of Extension, we are not aware of a database of economic analysis of actual farms with fall calving enterprises in the upper Midwest. Without this, we are unable take a good look at the total economic picture of changing the calving season to fall rather than spring.  But we know some Wisconsin beef producers are calving their herds in the fall. Is it profitable for them?

Spring/summer feed needs, shelter space, bedding, etc. are different from those needed in the fall/winter, and probably higher in cost compared to spring calving as most herds do. But are marketing opportunities gained? Individual profitability boils down to managing costs of production, so that the total costs of production are less than revenue received from sales. Cow-calf producers will need to carefully look at their own situation and resources to determine what will work best for them.

Sandy Stuttgen

Sandy Stuttgen is an agriculture educator, UW-Extension Taylor County