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March versus June calving

The decision to change a production practice on your farm can be a difficult one without the certainty of how it will impact the bottom line. However, using the knowledge of your own operation as well as your own regional weather, feed and market conditions, it becomes easier to make decisions that are best for you and your operation.

An example of a production decision is deciding the best time to calve out your cows. Traditionally, winter (January to March) calving has been the dominating calving period, mostly because it does not coincide with grain farming operations. Also, calves can be weaned in September at good weights and re-breeding can be controlled before the cows go out to pasture. A few disadvantages include potential frozen ears, increased time in a dry-lot setting creating manure build-up and feeding cows at their highest nutritional period during the winter can increase feed costs. Lately, the focus has turned to calving in the late spring or early summer on pasture. This practice is said to be more in line with nature, with lowered labour requirements and reduced winter feed costs. However, some disadvantages include handling cows across large pastures which may be difficult and time commitments may conflict with other chores on your farm. Summer born calves may not have a big market potential come weaning, therefore retaining your calves may need to be an option.

Recently a 3-year study involving the Western Beef Development Centre, Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada Swift Current and Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada Brandon compared a March calving system to a June calving system with cattle managed at Lanigan, SK, Swift Current, SK and Brandon, MB. Production costs throughout the 2007 and 2008 year were divided into 4 different feeding systems; drylot, bale grazing, swath grazing and pasture. Days on each feeding system were multiplied by the cost determined for the feeding system. Each site kept detailed records of the costs incurred in each calving system including feed, pasture, labour, equipment, fuel, land, chemical, fertilizer, veterinarian services, medication, salt and mineral, breeding, taxes, water, marketing, freight and operating interest.

Labour was calculated using $15.00 per hour. Equipment operating rates were determined based on Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture’s Farm Machinery Custom and Rental Guide. A rate of $0.80 per head per day was used as the pasture rate with labour, equipment use and supplementation added as recorded by each location. Costs for salt, mineral, taxes, water and freight were based on industry values provided by Manitoba Agriculture Food and Rural Initiatives and Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture. Marketing costs were based on each provinces check-off program.

Feed costs were based on the actual price paid for each unit of feed multiplied by units fed at each location and allocated to the different feeding systems. When supplemental feed was fed in a feeding system (e.g. hay bales on pasture), the supplement costs were assumed by the feeding system.

June calving reduced the total number of days in a drylot feeding system at all locations. At Brandon, Lanigan and Swift Current, days on feed in drylot were decreased by 120, 58.5 and 85.5 days, respectively.

Averaged across all locations, total costs for the June calving system were 10.5% less compared to the March calving system. The decreased number of days feeding stored feedstuffs in drylot pens reduced total costs for this system. Swath grazing costs were extremely dependent on the yield potential of the crop, and with dry conditions in 2007 at Swift Current, the March calving system’s costs were increased. At all locations, pasture costs were slightly higher in the June system due to the extra labour required to check the cows and additional supplemental feeding.

Based on economic data over 2 years, total production costs have the potential to be lower in a June calving system compared to a March calving system. Increasing the number of days on pasture or utilizing grazed forages has shown to reduce overall costs in this study. Finally, the June calving system had less days for drylot feeding, therefore reducing the impact of this high cost system on total production costs. Your operation will differ from these 3 locations in weather conditions, management decisions and herd conditions. When deciding whether to change to summer calving, consider all your potential risks and opportunities.

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