Fall calving is old hat to J.W. Nuckolls of Hulett, WY. He turned to August — September calving 42 years ago for two primary reasons: to minimize losses due to the pine needle abortion that's endemic to his region, and to better manage labor on his diversified sheep and cattle ranch.
“We have a shed lambing operation,” he says. “It takes all the labor we can muster just to handle lambing. We knew spring calving just wouldn't work at all.”
As a kid, Nuckolls watched his dad at times lose 30% of his calves to pine needle abortion in his spring-calving cows.
“They can slip a calf anytime after the first snow by eating pine needles,” he explains. “It's a problem you have to manage around if you have significant numbers of Ponderosa Pine trees.”
Nuckolls feeds hay to his pregnant cows when fall grass gets short. That way, they're less prone to forage in and around pine trees and ingest needles.
Initially, calving was in September — October, he says, but found he needed to “get the calves grown-up and haired-out a little more by calving just a little earlier.” Now, he manages breeding to complete a 45-day calving period by mid-September.
Nuckolls likes to split the cow herd into age groups for pasture management and to minimize numbers at branding.
“We don't like big brandings,” he says. “Since we're not around the cows much, we can keep better track of them in smaller bunches of 50 to 60 head.”
No matter the calving regime, feed demands in his area can get quite high at times. Feeding cattle hay 5 to 5 ½ months each year is the norm.
“The feed demands do get quite high at times with fall calving. I think that's what spooks a lot of people,” he says. “When you have sub-zero temperatures and that cow is milking, her winter feed demands can easily double. Fortunately, those spells are usually short-lived here.”
Come the month of May, Nuckolls will wean calves off the mature cows. Calves off younger cows may be weaned as early as February. Their mamas go to winter grass.
“Our calves average 630 lbs. at weaning, which probably isn't as heavy as a lot of guys who spring calve,” he says. “We lose a certain percentage of young cows to breed-back failure, especially if we have a nasty fall or a stressful winter.”
Nuckolls raises his own replacement heifers. May-weaned heifers will start cycling in early summer; cycle through the summer; and breed mid-October. The tough part is keeping the young heifers away from neighbors' bulls.
At times, he's been disappointed by the percentage of heifers bred the first cycle. Only about 35-38% get bred in a “timely manner,” he says. Then, there's a little gap before the remainder of the heifers get bred.
He's retained ownership the past 15-18 years, but stresses that early summer can be an attractive marketing time for mid-weight calves. He wonders if marketing alliances wouldn't be better off encouraging fall calving, especially with higher quality, better-grading “northern” cattle.
“I would think it would round out some of their needs for feeder calves,” he says.
A big advantage to fall calving is fall-born calves tend to be hardier than spring calves, Nuckolls says. Also, they develop a rumen earlier in life due to their exposure to hay and winter forages for a good part of their pre-weaning lives.
“When they hit spring grass, they really take off — put on 4 to 5 lbs./day,” he says.
One drawback to fall calving, he says, is that because the cow herd has such little human contact, they tend to be a little wild in disposition. “We work on that all the time, but we just aren't around them much. After all, the cows are on their own during calving; even the first-calf heifers,” he says.
There are advantages and disadvantages with fall calving, he notes. Besides pine needle abortion and labor management, he points to a simple environmental reason.
“The springs here can be really tough when the ground thaws. Manage around that and you can avoid a muddy mess. In this area, March can be one of the nastiest months of the year to calve,” he says.