We’ve all heard the advice about changing from calving in February and March to a time when the weather is nicer and the grass is growing. There are all kinds of reasons why it’s a good thing to do, but it’s not as simple as changing the date when you turn out your bulls. In fact, Larry Wagner of Wagner Land & Livestock argues that the very last thing you should think about is when you turn out the bulls. Instead he says you should focus on how you market the end product. “Are you going to background? Are you going to sell feeder cattle? You need to think all these things through. Those are all the important things. Because they’re going to be your profit and keep your ranch going.”
Luke Perman of Rock Hills Ranch in Lowry, South Dakota says figuring that out means thinking differently. “I think the biggest challenge, I wouldn’t even call it a disadvantage, you have to think differently as to how to manage the marketing of those later born calves. If you’re used to calving earlier and selling in the middle of the fall run, the second Saturday in October or whatever, and you’re used to selling a 560 pound steer, you’re going to have to rethink that.”
To help you with that, the eleven ranchers in this video talk about what they learned about staying profitable after they made the switch to May/June calving. I’ll summarize the key points for you here.
Know Your Product
Brett Nix says they used to sell some of their heifer calves at the sale barn for other folks to take home and breed. But, when they switched to May/June calving their calves were about 100 pounds lighter. When he took them to the sale barn, buyers weren’t bidding on them.
“I was sick to my stomach sitting in the sale barn,” he says. “Buyers were like, “Wow! What happened to this guy’s calves?” It was kind of embarrassing but we lived through it, we learned something from it. They still brought a good price. They just didn’t bring quite what we thought they normally would have and the same buyers didn’t but them.”
The lesson he learned was he needed to know his product. They used to market 7 weight calves in January and February. But when they calved 40 days later, they didn’t have that same product any more. They needed to understand that and make a change to how they marketed what they had.
“What worked for you before, if you figure you were sitting in the front row seat in a marketing scheme, you just have to figure out what day you need to go sit in the front row seat,” Nix says. “You can still get that same income. You just have to go on the right day. You have to strategize to figure out ‘when is my product going to be the most valuable?’
His solution: “If you calved 40 days later, start your marketing system/strategy 40 days later. So you move that to March April, which we did that for a couple of years. So you’re selling the same weight of calf, just 40 days later. Those buyers will come. They’re still there. We didn’t slip much there.”
Rick Smith of Hayti, South Dakota agrees. “All you’re doing is changing the dates on your calendar. So where we would sell at maybe they were after weaning then 60 days or 90 days after, that’s what we still do. So the revenue stream basically didn’t change. That way. Far as the individual.”
All that said, Nix reminds us that we need to also figure out how to raise our product as cheaply as possible. “I feel like you can do that. You can raise an animal at a very low cost and be extremely profitable and not have to give up on the income side that much while you’re doing it.”
Know Your Market Cycles
Jody Brown of Faith, South Dakota reminds graziers to pay attention to price cycles of the market. He says, “A 550 pound calf is worth the most the first of March according to Cattlefax. And they’re worth the least the first of November because everybody is selling.” Why? It’s because so many people calve early and want to sell in October, making supply greater than demand. Then when March comes around, there are very few cattle and calves available. “So, they’re worth more – according to cattle fax ten year averages,” he says.
What Does Your Customer Want?
Jimmie Kammerer, Kammerer Ranch, in Piedmont, SD reminds us that customers have their own ideas about what they’re looking for. “I think that’s a disconnect right now. And I think unfortunately as producers, we’re trying to force people to like what we’re doing and not really listening to our customers and finding out what they want.” She adds, “Plus, you know, most people don’t have a relationship with a ranch or farm and they don’t understand the process. There truly is a disconnect between customers and producers.”
Figuring out what your customer wants can take time. If you’re selling at the sale barn, pay attention to what’s getting the high dollar. Dugan Bad Warrior, Zuya Sica Ranch, Dupree, SD notes that buyers are looking for more evenly sized calves where they can put a load together instead of small bunches. “Everybody’s always worried about weights. When they say, “Well your calves are going to be smaller.” Well, yeah, they are. If you’re worried about calves weighing, well you can make it up with more of them and be able to market them better because you can sell better loads.”
Consider Animal Size
Doug Sieck, Deep Root Ranch, Selby, SD found that switching to smaller, more efficient cows meant he could raise more beef per acre and started transitioning his herd in that direction. He says the process can be painful, though. “If you start buying smaller frame bulls and breeding to your bigger cows, you end up with big cows with small calves and that’s not very efficient. If you sell all of your cows and buy back new cows that are smaller, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to get beat up in the market and that’s kind of painful too. So the transition phase has some bumps and you need to work your way around that. You need to be ready for it.”
Like Larry Wagner, Sieck encourages a focus on the bottom line with some consideration for what his customer wants. “So how do the finances work? How do the economics of this deal work? When you shift to smaller framed cattle, you have to kind of straddle the fence. I don’t want to get a reputation of having calves so small that buyers quit buying them because they have a reputation for being runts. But I don’t want the calves to be so big because big calves typically equate to a big cow. So I think that for me the ideal weight for a cow is somewhere around 1200 pounds. I think that fence I can straddle. I think it’s low enough so the cow will be efficient and will raise a calf that the buyers will be mostly happy with.”
Find Ways to Sell Outside the Sale Barn
Dugan Bad Warrior says he and his wife are looking at niche markets “because we’re all so tired of going to the sale barn and hoping for a good day. We want to have our calves marketed and we’re looking at grassfed beef.” The challenge he has yet to solve is getting his product to the people most interested in it.
Gene Holt, Holsing Farms, Wecota, SD says, “What we have done is we’ve just marketed through the barn. We have some calves that we sell off the top as bulls. We market them privately to a producer. But most of our calves are marketed through the sale barn. We are exploring the option of an all natural, no input product that would maybe add a premium to what we’re doing. But right now we’re just going through the barn, usually with light weight calves. And by light weight I mean somewhere in the 500 pound range.
But he’s still found working through the sale barn to be profitable when comparing their old system of March and April calving vs May/June. “When you figure per acre, favored the May and June calving, even when giving up the premiums on our calf sales.”
Here’s the full 12:34 video. If you’d like to check out the whole series, visit the South Dakota Grasslands Coalition’s website.
We’ve got more on changing your calving season
Here are four more On Pasture articles based on this video series by the South Dakota Grassland Coalition:
What Calving Season is Best for Your Bottom Line?
May/June calving reduces infrastructure and facilities costs for these ranchers.
Why Do We Do Things the Hard Way?
Reasons we don’t make the calving time switch (or make other changes that would be good for us.)
Turning Out the Bulls – Later
Planning for bull management when converting to later breeding and calving dates.
Providing good forage for calving season and year-round.
Ranchers talk about changes they made in their management after making the calving time switch.