By shifting calving to early summer, Beach, ND, ranchers Joe and Shannon Fritz positioned themselves to take advantage of peaks in the market. For example, with prices fairly high for lightweight calves this past year, the couple sold many of their calves at weaning in December. In years when the market is better for yearlings, they hold the calves, run them on grass and sell them in late spring or summer.
“Our system adapts to what the market dictates,” Joe Fritz says, who, along with his wife, runs a herd of 300 black baldies in the rolling Badlands of western North Dakota. They've been ranching since 1987 and traditionally have calved around April 1.
Six years ago, they began experimenting with later calving after learning about it from area grazing networks and Extension and university specialists. The Fritzes eased into it by first trying mid-April, then early May. Now, they start calving about May 24.
Fritz says their move to summer calving was prompted by an effort to reduce feed costs and labor. They don't harvest crops or put up hay, and he adds they “could see the cost for wintering cows with early calving was becoming more expensive.”
Today, bulls are turned out on the cows in mid-August, the cow herd winters on open range with minimal supplements and calving is in late May and June.
Despite lower quality forage available at breeding time, he says they've had minimal problems with conception rates.
“Our Extension specialists shared research with us indicating a cow's ability to rebreed is determined more on her body condition at calving than time of breeding,” Fritz says. “That was a surprise, but it helped us overcome our hesitation about calving later and breeding in August.”
Depending on the year and the market prices, the Fritzes may wean calves and sell them in December. They've also experimented with leaving calves on the cows through winter simply to cut costs, then selling them as grass stockers or yearlings.
“It can cost $100 to winter a calf, so if the weather is moderate and there's forage available, we'll leave them on the cow,” Fritz says. But calves will be weaned if the winter is tough or if the cows are losing too much condition, he adds.
With their system, the Fritzes aim to utilize their forages as efficiently as possible. During the growing season, the cattle are moved to new pasture every 7-10 days and are even rotated through pastures in the winter, just not as frequently.
“We try to run the cows and yearlings as a single herd as much as we can and to move them frequently to extend the rest period on pastures,” Fritz says.
He notes that frequently moving the herd can make it more difficult to keep recent calvers and their calves with the herd. Because of this, they're considering using a set stocking rate during calving.
Another lesson of the switch to summer calving is the importance of bull selection.
“These animals are primarily raised on a grass situation, so it's important to select for bulls that produce early maturing, small-to-moderate-frame animals,” Fritz says. “We want animals that will gain well on forage,” adding that it's also important to have a cow herd that's low maintenance and fertile.
Fritz says they plan to continue their summer calving. “We like that it offers more options and flexibility with our marketing,” he adds.
Kindra Gordon is a freelance writer based in Spearfish, SD.