Winter calving is a young person's game. Husband Lynn and I have done it for more than 30 years, but no longer have the endurance we once had.
Most of our cows calve in January, with a few late ones in February. We'd prefer to calve a different time of year - a season less labor intensive than cold weather. But spring, summer or fall calving in our situation are challenging, too.
We started winter calving in the late 1960s to get away from the sloppy weather of March and April. We wanted to cut the incidence and seriousness of scours. Our January calves are usually born in dry, cold weather, and are old enough by March to be relatively unaffected. Diarrhea at that time is not an intensive life-or-death situation for them.
We also went to winter calving to avoid breeding on summer range (public mountain pastures) with its non-selective matings and more strung-out breeding and calving seasons.
We prefer a short, fast calving season and selective breedings (more genetic improvement) at home in April before the cows go out. Thus we can use our own bulls, several small breeding pastures and mate selectively. This allows us to keep a good bull a long time and enables us to raise a lot of our own bulls. Predators Are An Issue
Summer calving would be difficult in our situation. The cows on summer range are harder to monitor. We have an increasing predator problem - both coyotes and transplanted wolves. It's harder to deal with a predator problem when cows are on public land.
Fall calving won't work, either. Cows are off range and the private mountain pastures we use until snow gets deep in December work best for dry cows after weaning in late September. In our arid climate, these native grasses are adequate for dry cows but lack enough protein for lactation. Newborns would also be at risk from predators.
To best utilize the feed our ranch and range produce, we almost have to calve in winter or early spring. Due to scours considerations in early spring, we're locked into winter calving unless we want to trade labor intensive calving for labor intensive doctoring.
Or, we could let nature take her course and trade off calf losses (from sickness in spring or coyote/wolf depredation in summer on public range) for the less labor-intensive calving time.
It's A Tradeoff The bottom line on profit in the cow/calf business is not how big the calves are at weaning nor even the percent of calf crop weaned. Rather, it's what it costs to get there.
What happens if the feed and supplement costs (to wean bigger calves or get cows bred back) are more than the extra income from a larger calf? For us, it's more profitable to have cows that produce well on our marginal feeds, wean slightly smaller calves and always breed back than to spend extra money to feed for higher production.
By the same token, the labor-intensive care required to save every calf in a winter calving situation can more than offset the profit in those calves. Perhaps a producer is better off financially and physically to go to a "survival of the fittest" philosophy of a different calving season.
For instance, we could calve in spring and hope we don't have a scour epidemic every year, or calve in summer and take our chances with predators on the range. But Lynn and I have a problem with the ethical implications of that.
We've been so intensively focused on saving every calf these past 35 years that we can't in good conscience take the "easy" route. These cows are our responsibility as well as our livelihood; and we feel obligated to give them every chance.
Ranching is a unique mix of financial and emotional obligations. It's often hard to sort out where one ends and the other begins.
At this point, we are caught in the calving season dilemma, and we will probably try to just continue to improve upon and work out the problems of winter calving. We also hope that as our endurance wanes the younger generation can help pick up where we leave off.