SALEM, Ohio – It’s January and the frozen ground is concealed under a thick blanket of snow.
The wind whips around the hills and valleys of northeastern Carroll County, whistling a wake-up call at 3 a.m.
Dan McKarns pulls himself from the comfort of a warm bed and dons coveralls and boots, enlists the aid of a four-wheeler and sets off across the hills in search of newborn calves.
At the same time, just five miles away, Mark Kohler stays in bed, dreaming of young calves in green pastures. His calving season is weeks away.
The two schools of thought aren’t uncommon, and examining the advantages and disadvantages is part of a growing movement of cattlemen looking to increase profits and efficiency.
Looking ahead. When April 1 rolled around, McKarns had more than 130 calves on the ground and was looking forward to the next calf crop.
He’s already started breeding for Jan. 1, 2004, calves.
McKarns and his father, Earl, operate Shamrock Vale Farm near Kensington, Ohio. They switched from a spring calving season years ago. The change came at the same time the farm converted to artificial insemination.
“We got our hands slapped and learned pretty fast. When you’re using all A.I., late June and early July is too hot to catch cows in heat,” McKarns said.
The operation finds it easier to get cows bred in April and May, when most other breeders are still calving.
The season also puts them at an advantage in the seedstock business.
“Those few more months give [bulls] more time to pass the [breeding and semen] test in March and April, when they’re more mature.
“And when guys are looking at bulls to buy, they look more impressive and mature,” he said.
At the market. According to John Comerford, a Penn State extension beef specialist, calving seasons are driven by three main factors: markets, farm resources and alternative enterprises.
Market forces impact beef breeding seasons, both for the cow and calf, Comerford said.
For cattlemen who sell feeder calves, the best market is in the spring, so fall calves have the upper hand.
“If I had my preference, I’d rather calve in the fall,” Kohler said, knowing his spring calves add to the glut in the fall market when feeder calves are cheapest.
Producers who sell calves going to grass and seedstock bulls and heifers, like McKarns, have an advantage to fall and early winter calving.
“If you wean them at the time [in March] on grass, they’ll be better off,” and perform better, Comerford said.
Those animals born earlier also have the benefit of selling older calves on the market and in spring bull sales, providing buyers a truer picture of the calf’s potential.
“Too many guys develop their cattle and then try to find a market. You’ve got to fit your program to a market, not go backward,” McKarns related.
In addition, cows culled from the herd after fall calves are weaned, typically around the holidays, can demand slightly more cash with better ground beef markets, Comerford said.
Out of the cold. Knowing that his operation can’t take full advantage of the best economics, Kohler keeps on calving in the spring for other reasons.
Environmental concerns weigh heavy on his mind.
At his 90-cow crossbred operation near East Rochester, Ohio, he believes the weather is too harsh to keep a cow and her calf in condition through the winter, so he aims for March 10 calves.
“Cows won’t milk as much on hay as they will on pasture, either,” he said, noting it’s harder to keep a cow and her nursing calf healthy through the winter.
Kohler also admits he doesn’t like the winter weather and what it can do to a herd.
“I watched guys lose calves this year in the cold and snow. It was a tough winter. I’d rather not have that headache,” he said.
His spring freshening gets the cows closer to grass, where they can improve body condition and breed back easier.
Time element. At the same time, McKarns prefers to deal with calves dropping on frozen ground than worrying about newborns during late freezes and thaws and spring rain showers.
He takes steps to cut his losses from the cold, including checking the herd every three hours around the clock.
“Whether it’s January, February or any time of the year, anyone who owns cattle should take responsibility and go check the herd,” he said.
“You’ve got to pay attention to your cows and calves. It sure saves the heartbreak of losing one.”
Making hay. Another of the biggest considerations is the farm’s other enterprises, which may include hay or row crops, and also relates to available labor resources.
“If a farmer has corn to plant, he sure doesn’t want to be calving in April and May. If he’s got hay to bale, he doesn’t want to be calving in May and June,” Comerford said, noting most cattlemen breed for convenience.
“They want to calve when they’re available for assisting in labor, and when there’s land and feed” available, he said.
Spring breeding also works with McKarns’ intensive grazing philosophy. Cows are hitting heavy grass and picking up more condition right now, which helps them come into milk better for their older calves.
Herds calving now have high milk production as a result of good pastures, but newborn calves “can’t handle a lot of milk right off the bat,” McKarns said.
The greening up also coincides with the more mature calf crop’s readiness to start on grass.
And as fields of hay continue to grow, McKarns finds himself ready to do hay.
“We can make hay to feed more cows without worrying too much about what’s going on. For us, the advantages of winter calves far outweigh any disadvantages,” he said.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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