When you're on the opposite side of the calving calendar and you hear how much your neighbor snagged for his fall-born calves at weaning, it can be awfully tempting to consider alternatives.

After all, the scarcity of fall-born calves means they typically bring significantly more than spring-born calves at the same weight (Table 1). In fact, hit the February market with a 550-lb. calf and the market is historically 2% above the annual average, points out Cattle-Fax analyst Dave Weaber.

“Spring calves sold in October are in a market that's typically 4% below the annual average. So there's a 6% difference in calf revenue to work with, $30 per head on just light calves,” he adds.

Never mind that:

  • those same calves carried into a feedlot after summer grazing (Table 2) have the opportunity to sell as fed cattle in March and April, typically the highest fed markets of the year (Table 3);

  • and the fact that open fall cows discovered during preg-checking can be sent directly to market in March and April, which is usually the highest cull market of the year (Table 4).

Unfortunately, price is not created equal to cost and profit, nor is the calf itself the only resource a cow-calf producer markets.

“Before any change in breeding, calving and weaning seasons are made, consider the marketing plan first,” suggests Glenn Selk, a beef Extension reproduction specialist for Oklahoma State University (OSU).

Weighty Considerations

For one thing, pounds still drive every cattle market. Consequently, fall calves that are enough lighter than their spring contemporaries may never gross as much even at higher prices.

As an example, John McGrath, who manages the Beef Division of Amana Farms Inc., in Iowa, says adding cows to their fall program hasn't increased the cost of production, though the cost/cwt. of fall calves may be higher because of lighter weaning weights.

But in their operation (see page 36), they can make up for it with retained ownership. For perspective, their spring cows calve mid-March to mid-May and wean at 180-200 days. Their fall cows calve August to September and wean at 150-170 days.

Move farther south, though, and Selk isn't convinced fall-born calves necessarily wean at lighter weights than spring-born calves. In fact, he says the OSU fall herd weans as much or more as its spring cows. Typically, Selk says herds in the Southern Plains calve in September and October, then wean during the first half of summer between the end of June and the first of July.

Of course, age of the calf impacts weaning weights, too. At OSU, those fall calves are typically weaned 30-60 days later than spring calves; at Amana the fall calves are typically weaned 30 days earlier than their spring counterparts so they can be slotted into summer grazing programs.

Same Costs — Different Priority

Next, the cost of producing a weaned cwt. of calf can vary significantly. This means that a higher gross price that comes at a higher cost may be a losing proposition.

However, contrary to the popular notion that it must cost more to feed a lactating cow through the winter (fall cow) than pouring the groceries into a gestating cow in the late winter (spring cow), Selk says that, managed effectively, the cow cost in both situations is similar.

In Oklahoma's database for Standardized Performance Analysis, he says carrying cost for the fall cows is a few dollars more per head on average. Rather than cost, it's a matter of when cows need the most nutritional boost.

Table 1: Seasonal Calf Prices (550 lb.)*
Month Average Price ($/cwt.)
January 84.58
February 86.16
March 88.88
April 88.62
May 86.44
June 85.93
July 86.54
August 85.29
September 83.64
October 82.38
November 82.91
December 84.18
*1991-2000 Source: Cattle-Fax
Table 2: Seasonal Feeder Steer Prices (750 lb.)*
Month Average Price ($/cwt.)
January 76.94
February 76.19
March 75.29
April 74.55
May 74.04
June 75.21
July 76.72
August 76.03
September 75.35
October 75.08
November 75.74
December 76.28
*1991-2000 Source: Cattle-Fax

In the case of spring cows, McGrath points out the highest nutritional requirements come during the winter ahead of calving. For fall cows, it's heading into breeding season as forage quality declines.

Incidentally, Selk says, “I always encourage producers to consider what will be going on during breeding season. We've got to have that as optimal as possible.”

Specifically, he refers to the requisite manpower, nutrition, breeding-friendly temperatures and other basic components that need to be accounted for in considering an added or alternate calving season.

“As we expand the discussion into having both a fall and a spring herd, some argue that anything that's a gain in one is a loss in the other,” Selk says.

But there's no question that operating on both sides of the fence offers risk management. “It's a diversification strategy, not putting all of your eggs into one basket,” Weaber says.

Marketing What You Have

Along with the marketing and cost trade-offs, there are opportunity costs unique to each operation that may make one strategy patently ludicrous while acting as the fulcrum of profitability in another.

For instance, Selk says there are cow-calf producers in western Oklahoma who know a fall program would be more profitable to their cattle enterprise. But their wheat operation, the profit from which drives their overall sustainability, demands they don't calve at the same time they need to get wheat ground ready or planted.

Conversely, in Iowa, Joe Sellers, Extension livestock field specialist for Iowa State University, says that: “If cow-calf producers want to diversify by adding an enterprise, it might make as much sense to add a fall calving program as something else.” His point is that folks with the expertise, facilities and desire to raise calves may be better off doing more of the same than beginning a backgrounding enterprise, stocker program or something else that requires different resources than a cow-calf producer may have in place without making additional investment.

On both counts, both labor and intellectual capital are among the resources being marketed in either fall or spring. That goes for cattle labor.

The same bulls, more cows and two different seasons means that pregnancy costs go down. Plus, if feed costs allow, Selk says another small edge of two calving seasons is the capability to take fall-born replacement heifers and keep them open another few months into the breeding season.

“Because these replacement heifers will be 30 months old when they calve the first time rather than 24 months, they should be more likely to breed early in the breeding season and calve with less difficulty,” he says. So, these replacements should have more value whether they're kept or marketed.

For that matter, cows allowed to go through a fair portion of the summer without a calf at side — the extra condition heading into winter — can increase cycling and breeding percentages over spring cows.

This added reproductive performance, along with calving ease and calf health are among the benefits McGrath found with his fall program. Whether it's the impact of summer weather on metabolism and other biologic functions, or the simple fact the weather allows cows to get more exercise, McGrath says they have less dystocia with the fall-calving cows. Likewise, calving in the fall means he doesn't have to fight flies and pinkeye like he does with the spring-born calves.

None of that is to say that spring, fall or a combination of the two is the answer.

“All of this varies so much from one operation to another that it's certainly no one size fits all solution,” Selk says.

Plotting Strategy

As much as weighing the net benefits of a fall or a spring season, Selk points out it's a matter of weighing the trade-offs of timing within season. For instance, Selk says that if a producer calves cows in late spring, they're almost forced to look at early weaning because no one wants a 400- to 500-lb. calf nursing a cow as the stresses of mid-winter are coming on.

Table 3: Seasonal Choice Fed Steer Prices*
Month Average Price ($/cwt.)
January 69.98
February 70.29
March 71.55
April 71.35
May 69.35
June 67.59
July 66.61
August 66.63
September 67.22
October 68.49
November 69.74
December 69.12
*1991-2000 Source: Cattle-Fax
Table 4: Seasonal Slaughter Cow Prices*
Month Average Price ($/cwt.)
January 40.38
February 42.51
March 43.52
April 43.43
May 43.02
June 42.55
July 42.30
August 42.20
September 40.08
October 38.36
November 37.19
December 38.16
*1991-2000 Source: Cattle-Fax

On the other hand, he emphasizes, “If they're retaining ownership, an opportunity for fall-calving programs is to wean early at a time those calves could fit into a summer stocking program. They can get them into a summer stocking program or take them through the feedlot and market them in what are typically the highest fed markets of the year.”

Moreover, Selk points out, “Two calving seasons fit best for herds with more than 80 cows. To take full advantage of the economies of scale, a ranch needs to produce at least 20 steer calves in the same season to realize the advantage associated with increased lot size.”

So, while some variables of beef production are beyond producer control, Selk says, “Breeding, calving, weaning and marketing dates are not the product of Mother Nature, but are managerial decisions that don't have to conform to tradition.”