Some might consider Wyoming an unlikely place for fall calving, but nine years after making the change, Maurice Bush is an avid proponent.
Bush ranches with his family in Ten Sleep, which is in north-central Wyoming. He says calving in August and September has brought clear and measurable advantages.
Last year, he registered a 99.3% calf crop on the more than 200 cows he runs in a 5,000-acre pasture. Beyond that, he lists four more advantages to fall calving:
Virtually no calving labor.
Less bull cost — one bull/30-35 cows.
Drastically reduced winter feeding costs.
More marketing opportunities.
Management flexibility, especially in the face of continued drought.
After weaning in January, calves generally go to a warm-up lot in nearby Worland for 100 days. The calves might only weigh 300 lbs., but can gain 2 lbs./day on a high-energy ration, he points out. Then, depending on grass availability, they either come home or go to a finishing yard at 550 lbs., under retained ownership or sold outright.
When he first explored fall calving, Bush was told by feeders that fall-dropped calves didn't gain like spring calves, he says. At first, he found they were right.
Bush says the key to fall calving though, is managing the calves in a way that doesn't inhibit their growth. This includes keeping calves on their mothers for too long or when the cows aren't milking well.
“Their growth will regress and they'll be stunted,” he says. “That's where fall calving will fall apart, especially for someone trying it for the short term.”
As he learned more about how fall calving would fit, Bush kept moving up weaning time — first at 500+ lbs. in mid-July, then late-May, mid-April — until he found January to be the optimal weaning window.
Bush says it's nearly impossible in a normal Wyoming winter to maintain the nutrition needed for a cow to carry and raise her calf like a spring-calver on green grass.
“However,” he adds, “we've found that if you keep calves on an even plane of growth by weaning when they're light but still gaining, and then go to a growing program, they'll compete with spring calves.”
He says his last kill sheet is proof that fall calves can gain in the feedlot — 3.85 lbs./day on crossbred steers, 3.35 lbs./day on heifers.
“You just can't allow those calves to back off,” he adds. “But you also can't afford to keep dumping feed into those cows.”
Bush normally feeds each cow-calf pair 60 lbs. of haylage for 60 days — quitting at weaning. That's the equivalent of ¾-ton of hay/year — less than half what he fed when he was spring calving.
“I just care about efficiency, keeping costs down and making money on these cattle,” he says. “My philosophy is the simpler you can keep it, the better off you'll be.”
Not incidentally, Bush has bought his replacement heifers the last few years.
“Especially with the drought, I didn't want to keep replacement heifers on the ranch,” he explains. “Plus, I think raising your own replacements costs more than a guy thinks.”
Bush also believes it might be a little tougher raising replacements with a fall calving herd. For one thing, he says, “you have to keep those calves that will be cycling away from the neighbor's bulls. That's a hassle.”
Depending on availability and the market, Bush often buys open heifers. He's careful though, not to buy someone else's culls.
Because every ranch is different, Bush admits fall calving might not work in some operations. But if a rancher is committed to it, avoiding nasty winter and spring calving weather can make life a whole lot easier.
“We turn them out all winter and hardly even look at the cows or calves until we get to thinking about weaning,” he says. “For us, it's so easy it's almost embarrassing.”