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Here’s Why You Should Consider Calving on Grass

Me in my winter overalls with one of our kids before I figured out a better way.

Graziers who still think that “Spring” calving starts in late February and early March think they have good, logical reasons. They probably cite economics, and the old “this is the way we’ve always done it.” And I’m not entirely unsympathetic. After all, I used to kid my goat herd in February in the middle of some of the coldest times in Logan, Utah. And I thought I had good reasons too. Mine were research oriented. I wanted the kids weaned before their Moms headed out for their summer job building firebreaks. I thought that the kids would just be too much trouble on the work site and I chose to leave them home instead.

There were costs to my decisions. I had to struggle through freezing temperatures, sometimes bring kids home to warm up, and then I had to feed them all summer long while their moms were at work. But everything changed when I did a small experiment that showed me it wasn’t so hard to keep kids in fences and working, and that they gained more weight than the stay at home kids.

If I could change my mind, other graziers can too. And to help with that, here’s an 11:23 minute video from Growing Resilience that highlights all the benefits, and the lack of downsides, to pushing calving to a later date when the grass is green and growing and the lack of blizzards makes life a lot more fun. You’ll meet three ranchers who lay it out in plain language while sharing some lovely pictures of their cows and calves. You can watch the video, or read the transcript. Then, scroll to the bottom of the page where you’ll find links to other past articles that cover everything from the economics, to the logistics of turning out the bulls, and a chat about why we choose to do things the hard way.

Enjoy!

What are the basic benefits of later calving?

Mike Blaalid, Rancher, Mitchell, SD: It really works out for me because I think the cattle stay in a little better shape. I don’t have to put as much feed to them all winter. I can maintain them a little easier. I can get them out grazing. I can meet some of my grass goals of knocking back cool season grasses. And I can have healthy calves on green grass. It just really works for me and my operation. Its a little less stress on everybody for sure because we typically don’t have blizzards in May.

When did you calve? What problems did you encounter?

Mike: Originally I had always calved on the first of April, and with that being said, you’d always get a few calves at the last part of March.

Larry Wagner, Chamberlain, SD: We always started calving by the first of March.

Mike: I don’t have great infrastructure to calve in March or April or February. Nor do I want to put a lot of money into that sort of stuff.

Candace Olson-Mizera, McLaughlin, SD: Growing up here we calved and checked cows and heifers in the middle of the night. Before school. Dad would bring in chilled calves down in the basement for you to give them a shower and blow dry them at 2 in the morning.

Mike: Really it probably wasn’t until 2018 we had a pretty severe April blizzard and then one in 2019 as well.

Larry: Had a really bad winter one time. It was really cold and first March come and it was like 20 below for 10 days.

Mike: And then you get 12 inches of snow on the 15ht of April. That was kind of the last straw for me. And pushing it back 2 weeks wasn’t really a big deal.

Candace: Fourteen years ago Bob and I got married and we were still calving heifers in February or the 10th of March and cows started 15th or 20th of March. He said, “Why don’t we push this back? We’re killing ourselves to save a few calves and you can’t sell dead one.

Wagner: Just had to do something different. So I went to May.

Candace: April 23rd is what we shoot for now.

Mike: This year I started, I think, on the 3rd of May calving. And it was pretty cool year this year. So we had pretty slow grass growth early. And it’s coming along now.

What is a benefit you’ve found of late calving?

Mike: Since I calve later I can, if the weather allows, I can bring my cattle to pasture a little earlier because I’m not moving baby calves in the stock trailer from my home place to here. So actually, I get cattle out before they calve which is nice because there’s always a flush of cool season invasive grasses – brome and Kentucky bluegrass – and they do well on it early in the year. And if I suppress it early in the spring, I can try to promote my native grasses to come through later in the early to mid summer when the warm season grasses start to grow. But it really is a nice way to get some early season grazing and put those cows in good condition to calve successfully on their own.

How do you manage your late calving herd?

Mike: Typically we have a few calving pastures we work through in the spring. We’re on our second one now. We’ve been here for a week and we’ll just essentially keep moving as needed depending on how fast they end up calving out. When we’re done calving though, they’ll actually be joined up with another herd of custom heifers and be run as all one herd. But we’re just kind of waiting to be done calving.

Candace: This year we weren’t close to a barn at all. We were 4 miles away from the closest bar. So we just set up a tub next to a corral, had a few that we had to get in. But otherwise they calve a lot better on their own when the weather is nicer too.

Mike: We have a longer rotation where we don’t move quite a soften with the newborns and the babies. But the other thing is, we just don’t move as far. Taking the time to make sure everybody is paired up before you move them, especially if you’re going to move them any distance. Because it’s hard to find baby calves sometimes when they’re really little. Leaving one behind isn’t fun. So I think it’s close moves and a little bit bigger paddocks. That’s what we do right now.

Have you made changes to the type of cow you raise?

Mike: What we’re looking for in a bull and its traits…if I were going to keep my replacement heifers I wanted a little smaller frame animal that would perform a little better on grass. That’s really all we’ve tried to do. I’m OK with some smaller birth weight calves when you have in them in the spring. It’s a little easier on everybody. I really don’t like pulling calves. It’s hard on the cows. We’ve been pretty fortunate. We haven’t had to pull hardly any in the time I’ve owned cattle. Twice I think in 10 years. It’s really important for me to have an alive, healthy calf.

What differences have you found in calf health and productivity?

Mike: The calves are in good condition. They’re born on green grass. We get better at that as we rotate a little better. We’re not treating as many animals. Last year I don’t think I treated any pinkeye. I’d say generally we’ve saved money by doing it this way. Especially not having sick calves in March or April. They always seem pretty healthy. We don’t have to do very much to the calves after they’re born.

Candace: When we backed off calving we were 14 pounds back on the heifers and 9 pounds back on the steers. The calves just hit the ground and started growing. Instead of fighting for their lives and putting all of their energy from the colostrum and mama’s milk into staying alive and staying warm they actually grow. So they catch up pretty fast.

What are some of the personal benefits from late calving?

Mike: The major changes that I’ve seen from moving back, I’ve had calves in blizzards and it’s just not enjoyable for anybody. The stress on me and my family and trying to calve in April always has those challenges. So the lower stress is probably the main ones.

Larry: I go to bed, I want to go to bed and sleep. And the thing with May calving on grass, and I don’t know why and I’ve asked a lot of people and nobody can give me an answer. But most of the calves are born from 5 to 7 in the morning. There’s no calving during the middle of the night as opposed to when you have them shut up in lots and stuff. And so if it wasn’t for May calving and calving my three year olds, I wouldn’t have cattle today. Because I couldn’t do it. You know, you can tell people, and people can ask you about it. But until you really experience it, you don’t realize how it changes your work load.

Candace: It just seems like everything’s happier, you know. People and cattle and the grass. So it’s kind of a win-win-win.

Mike: The second thing I really enjoy being out on the prairie early in the spring. So you’re kind of in a little more in touch with nature. Because you’re checking them every day on the pasture. You’re keeping an eye on how they’re performing, what they’re targeting on the pasture, and monitoring the grass and how it’s holding up. So it’s really handy because you’re forced to be with the cattle early in the spring. They’re out and about doing their thing so you have to be there with them.

What do you tell other graziers?

Larry: You know, guys will say, about calving, “Are you calving?” I say, “How many fawns you got at your place?” Well they look at you like you’re a dummy. “Well, I ain’t got any! You know it’s too early for fawns” And I say “Yep, that’s right. You better be doing what Mother Nature’s doing.” I say, “She’s been this a lot longer than you have and she’s got it figured out – that you ain’t out there in the winter time and doing all those things.”

You gotta look at the big picture. My idea is the big picture is what Mother Nature does and intends for us to do. You got to look at that picture, in my opinion, in order to make it work. My saying is, “You can fight mother nature and you can win a few battles, but she’s going to win the war. So if you want to be here for a long time, you better be doing what she intended for us to be doing.

Mike: I highly recommend moving it back a little bit. It works well for me and it may not for everybody. If you’re looking to get started in running cattle and don’t have a lot of infrastructure or just all those things you may heed for earlier calving this is great way to do it. It’s relatively low cost. You get your cows bred for early May and you can, most years, have them out on pasture by then and you don’t have to have a lot of money tied up in infrastructure you only use for a small amount of time. So I’d say it would be a good way to get started. It just works out.

I’m going to keep it that way. I don’t see nay reason why I’d go back.

Want More?

This isn’t the first time we’ve covered the concept of later calving, and it’s not the first time the folks in South Dakota have made their case. In 2021 we shared several stories based on a series of videos by the South Dakota Grasslands Coalition on different aspects of the making the move to calving with nature. This one talks about some of the economics involved and provides links to the rest in the series. Enjoy!

Changing Calving Dates? Here’s Help for Thinking About Finances, Profit and Marketing

You might also like this factsheet from Growing Resilience with some additional benefits of calving later, including these thoughts from three ranchers:

Finally, thanks to Growing Resilience for their work!

P.S. If you’re still not convinced, I’ve got some resources for you here.

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