The calving season is well underway on the Prairies, with some cow-calf operations calving with snow on the ground, while others plan to calve on pasture. Regardless of the starting date, the length of the calving season is directly related to the length of the previous breeding season. Research shows moving toward a desirable 60-day breeding season is a good goal for all beef producers.
University field trials demonstrate a 60-day versus a longer 90-day (and beyond) period to get the cow herd rebred with next year’s calf crop yields several profitable advantages including better cow health and fertility, a more uniform calf crop, and heavier calves at weaning. It also allows for more flexible farm management. It permits improved feed inventory, streamlines feeding programs, implements more effective health programs and creates several opportunities to market cattle.
Oklahoma State and Texas A & M universities studied the respective profitability of long and short breeding seasons. The researchers found that as the days of the breeding season increased, the total production expenses per cwt of weaned calves also increased. In contrast, they found that as the number of days of the breeding season decreased, the saleable pounds of calf per cow significantly increased.
Discipline and management
Closer to home, I know beef producers who run a 120-head cow-calf operation. Until they decided to shorten their operation’s breeding season, they struggled. They had an open-ended 100-day-plus breeding season, which created an endless calving season and a 150-lb. weight gap between the first and last calf born. Furthermore, cows and bulls were often heat-stressed during the breeding season, which contributed to a 15 per cent open-cow rate and creation of a small fall-calving cowherd.
With a lot of hard work, they tightened their annual breeding season to 55 days, and it’s paid off. For example, they just sold 80 backgrounders (late-Feb. 2019) with a weight range of 875-910 lbs. on scaled 11-month steers. The husband also told me that most of these uniform black Angus x Shorthorn animals brought an extra 20 cents (cwt) compared to similarly sold steers on the same day.
It started seven years ago when they applied a few sound principles, which they continue to use. First, my friend and his wife assured me that the whole cow herd was put on a high plane of nutrition. They started feeding them higher quality forages (mixed alfalfa-grass hay) complemented with a well-balanced mineral-vitamin program six weeks before the start of the calving season and throughout the next 80-day post-calving period to the first day of the breeding season with the bulls.
As a result, most of their cows maintain a desirable body condition score of 3.0-3.5 (1 = emaciated and 5 = obese), which has almost guaranteed most of them to have a strong estrus cycle before being released onto pasture, and another cycle during the first 21 days of the breeding season. This latter cycle has significantly increased the chance of conception to 70 per cent during the first mating by the breeding bulls.
Second, while mature cows were moved toward a 60-day breeding season, their first-calf calf yearling heifers were given a tighter 45-day one. They are now routinely bred about three weeks prior to the rest of the main cow herd. The third parameter was implemented, but only during a couple of initial breeding seasons from seven years ago. My friend chose a removal date of the bulls that coincided with the last calf being born the following spring. He also began turning the bulls out to cows 10 days later than usual and then removing them 10 days earlier than a regular season.
Furthermore, 60 days after the bulls were removed, all cows were and still are vet-checked for confirmation of pregnancy. Old cows and truly infertile cows are culled. As mentioned, open cows and replacement heifers that were heat-stressed in the past were given another life in a fall-calving herd.
Again, it really took a lot of hard work and discipline to implement these changes to achieve a shorter breeding season, yet this is an excellent testimonial to how it’s paid off with better long-term cow reproductive performance, heavier weaned calves and more profit.