What does it mean for beef cows to “calve with nature?”
Strictly from a biological standpoint, calving with nature in the Northern Plains would point towards a May-June time period, which is consistent with when wildlife tends to be born or emerge. Consider when animals come out of hibernation; when nestlings hatch; and when wild fawns, kids, and calves are born.
Generally, this emergence coincides with the land also awakening with spring forage, insects and other nutritional food sources for both mothers and their young. Consider also that mothers have a few weeks of exercise and high nutrition on green forage prior to parturition, helping them achieve prime condition to ready themselves for birth.
Ironically, there is an underlying belief, even among some experienced livestock producers, that cattle are different than other animals and naturally calve earlier.
Early calving is a product of human management decisions, not biology. Certainly, there are many considerations that drive the decision to an earlier or later calving date, but the key message here is that producers have a lot of control over when their cattle calve.
Why calve with nature?
Ultimately, the “why” of calving with nature comes down to a few simple, but very important considerations.
1. Animal health. Cow condition, nutrition, calving ease, and other factors point toward late spring or early summer as most natural. Closely related is the desire to avoid congestion of animals in barns, mud and snow, and the human labor associated with calving in those conditions.
Cattle, like wildlife, are pre-disposed to being able to birth their young on their own. A cow calving on green pastures in May usually will not have the same challenges as a cow calving in mud in March. There are some caveats to this, though.
2. Human health. Early calving in snow, mud or congested conditions requires labor. Not only labor, but labor at all hours of the day and night, which can lead to high stress and poor relationships with family or hired help.
Calving in these conditions is often tense and stressful on both people and animals. Improved human health, reduced stress, and improved family relationships were often cited as key considerations that drove change to a later calving date.
3. Financial health. The bottom line for the financial argument is drastic savings in input expenses to maintain the cow throughout the winter months. Producers who have switched to later calving need not maintain their cows in top condition in the worst of the winter months when feed and yardage expenses are highest.
Couple that with electricity, equipment, veterinary or medical costs, labor and other expenses associated with calving during the snowy months and it’s easy to see how quickly expenses can add up related to the upfront investment per calf. If calving at a later date, especially when calving on pasture, producers can curb cow maintenance expenses, calf health expenses and overall input costs.
4. Time. Across the board, producers who have switched also cited having more time to invest into other activities. Ironically, the long-held notion that calving later competes with farming operations tends not to hold true.
Those who have switched to a later calving date said some of the greatest benefits include calving ease, less labor, less time invested in managing cows and more time for other aspects of the operation, including field preparation and planting time.
Bauman is a South Dakota State University Extension range management specialist.