Western-states producers pondering a switch to alternative calving seasons have several issues to consider that are perhaps unique to the arid West, and especially Intermountain ranching operations. One of these may include incorporating a federal grazing lease into the overall management plan.

Here are five of the common challenges for ranching operations utilizing public grazing leases.

  1. Managing grazing leases

    There's a wide range of grazing permits available, including U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), state land and possibly Indian lands. Each has unique requirements.

    For example, USFS permits are specific to each forest and its management team. Turnout dates may range from late June to not at all, depending on conditions. Meanwhile, BLM permits generally have turnout dates in mid- to late May, while some winter use permits are also granted.

    Effectively utilizing these leases can impact calving dates. For example, AI programs may have to take place before turnout in late May, which would move calving to early March. Also, many ranches trail cattle to summer grazing permits, which requires that calves be old enough to make the trip.

  2. Managing forage resources

    Another consideration for Intermountain ranches is meadow management. Many operations calve where there's adequate protection, accessibility and water. This usually means the meadows.

    Calving dates are often early so cattle can be moved from the meadows to allow for irrigation and forage growth. The obvious argument would be to graze meadows instead of harvesting forage, but grazing meadows may interfere with the ability to maximize use of federal grazing permits, i.e., maximizing forage resources.

  3. Managing labor resources

    Many ranches face the challenge of limited labor. While calving on green grass would hopefully minimize calving problems and potentially reduce scouring issues, May calving also coincides with meadow irrigation and fencing. And, mid- to late July AI and breeding programs would coincide with hay production. This is another example of how decisions dramatically affect the entire operation.

  4. Managing prices

    While alternative (later) calving helps reduce the need for harvested forages, the markets don't always cooperate. Many ranches that retain ownership of their cattle “push” calving date and performance to make the April fed-cattle market, which is currently $7/cwt. higher than the June market. Moving calving to a later date may jeopardize the calves' ability to finish in the following spring pricing window.

  5. Summer and/or fall calving on public lands

    Managing alternative calving dates with public lands permits would dictate that calving occurs while cattle are on the federal grazing lease. Although one would expect a lower incidence of calving difficulties, the remoteness of the grazing allotment, the roughness of the terrain and size of the pasture may limit the ability to closely manage calving. Additional concerns would include predation of newborn calves and maximizing the use of the grazing permit.

However, if stocking rates are assigned based on number of pairs and in/out dates are based on the calendar and not the forage, a cow and spring-born calf at side would tend to get greater forage utilization from the permit.

While these issues aren't meant to discourage alternative calving dates, they do point out that it's often a complicated decision. The best advice is to evaluate the current operation, decide where the operation should be headed and make specific, attainable steps to reach those goals. As Yogi Berra stated, “You've got to be careful if you don't know where you're going 'cause you might not get there.”

Steve Paisley, PhD, is a beef Extension specialist at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.