For years, winter — early spring calving worked just fine for Jimmy Collins, but that didn't keep him from looking for an even better season.
“Fifteen years ago, we calved in January and February,” says the Cusseta, AL, producer. “We'd wean in November and winter graze the calves. By pushing it back, we can sell the same final product 2½ to 3 months quicker.”
That “product” is one load of 650- to 660-lb. steers, and another of 700-lb. calves. But now, instead of marketing them in March after growing them on winter annuals, he weans the October to December-born calves in July, preconditions them, sells them in August and delivers them in September.
“We have more buyers looking for calves then,” Collins says, “and we have a whole lot less competition selling.”
Auburn Extension economist Walt Prevatt concurs, adding that in 2002, 72.9% of the nation's calves were born from Jan. 1 to June 30. That's consistent with other years when about 75% of all calves are born in the first half of the year.
Banding For Market Clout
Nine years ago, Collins and other area producers formed the Piedmont Marketing Association. They set the third Thursday of August as the board sale day.
“We looked at 20 years of marketing data and decided it would be the best time,” Collins explains, adding that it also works out for the feeders buying the calves.
“The steers come out of the feedlot in February and March and hit a peak market. The folks feeding our cattle can afford to buy feeders on a higher-priced August market because they're shooting for a peak, fed-cattle market,” he says.
Again, Prevatt agrees. “By buying a heavy enough calf in August, the feeders can make that calf finish in March and April. Over a 10-year average, those are the higher price times for finished cattle.”
Granted, with Collins' fall calving season, there are typically more dollars on the selling end, but what about the cost of feeding that wet cow during the winter?
“Some folks would argue about higher winter feed costs, but we've cheapened our rations so much by using by-products,” Collins remarks.
He estimates that it costs him $30/head more to feed a fall-calving cow than a winter- or spring-calver. His total annual supplement costs run $112 to $122/cow.
His by-products range from baled or ensiled gin trash to peppermint candy to broiler litter. He feeds a mixture of the by-products in troughs made from discarded tractor tires. Baled gin trash goes in salvaged cotton wagons with the sides cut down to 24 in. in height.
“One thing that made us realize we could make fall calving work is that we can store a lot of feed on that cow by getting the calf off of her and getting her in real good condition,” he says.
Dry cows put on pounds with late summer growth of Bermuda grass and Bahia grass, going to fescue pastures when they calve. Collins still plants some winter annuals, but normally he overseeds them in hay pastures to bale for weaned calves.
Conception rates haven't suffered. He normally culls 5-12% of his cows/year, which includes open cows and cows culled for age (the usual cause) or soundness problems. He gives first-calf heifers a little help by creep feeding during the 90 days the bulls are in the pasture.
“It lightens the load on the cows and helps them start cycling,” he says.
Prevatt says Collins should hit a better market for the culls, too.
“Fall calving offers a better market window to sell cull cows and bulls,” Prevatt says. “Spring and early summer, or May, June and July, are almost always better than September, October and November.”
As a bonus to stronger feeder and cull prices, Collins says his fall calving season makes his replacement heifer market even stronger as more producers go to a fall calving season.
“With our replacement heifers, it gives other producers a chance to get in on the front end of a fall calving season,” he says.
Becky Mills is a freelance writer in Cuthbert, GA.