Lawrence Bernard used to be the kind of cattleman who let nature take its course. Years ago, he used a year-round breeding program and as a result, had near year-round calving. One benefit of this approach was he never had to pen the bull.
Then, this North Carolina cattleman decided to shift his 100-head herd to a controlled-breeding season. Now, he can't imagine any reason good enough to go back. Bernard, based in Milton, said most years, he doesn't have the numbers to market a whole truckload of steers or heifers. But a controlled-breeding season allows him to maximize the return on every animal that leaves his ranch -- and that can add up.
"The last two or three years, I have done better selling them at the stockyard than off the farm," he said. With a 60-day calving season, the calves are all ready to sell at the same time, a known plus when it comes to price.
Virginia cattleman Tom Nixon agrees the advantages of a controlled-breeding and calving season far outweigh any disadvantages. He and wife, Kim, ranch in Rapidan. They usually market two loads of preconditioned calves through the Central Virginia Cattlemen Association's Tele-Auction in August. "Normally, we hit a home run," Tom said of the sale. "The biggest thing with a controlled-breeding season is that you have better control of when to market your calves." One goal, he added, is to put together uniform truckloads for sale every year.
A controlled-breeding season also helps in terms of when and how Nixon markets cull cows. He ships them if they're open after calving season or at weaning when he preg-checks the herd.
During calving, Nixon typically checks heifers as many as four times a day. Without a controlled-breeding and calving season, that sort of intense effort wouldn't work on his 1,000-head herd (700 cows, 200 to 300 heifers).
The herd calves in two 60-day seasons; one in the fall, the other in the spring. Breaking calving into two seasons helps spread the risk and the cost.
In Bernard's case, controlled breeding made it easier for him to shift his calving area, making it simpler to keep a check on cows and heifers. He used to have cows deliver on pasture; now he puts them in high tensile lots, with 20 to 25 head in each lot. This takes place about the third week in September. Once cattle are in these lots, either he or his wife, Meredith, check on them frequently during calving. Not only does this give them time to assist during a difficult birth, but it makes it easier to know just what he's got and to track the herd.
"I tag the calves at birth," Bernard said. "Then, when all of them are on the ground, the end of November or the first of December, I work everything. I cut the steers, give the first round of blackleg and deworm them. In February, I vaccinate then booster them in 21 days. I vaccinate them again 30 days before sale time or after they are weaned if I keep them." He also deworms the cows the first time he works the calves.
The Nixons also have a comprehensive vaccination and deworming program, but they add a step. In their spring calving herd, when scours are more of a problem, they give cows a scours vaccine precalving and then vaccinate the calves at birth.
University of Tennessee animal scientist Justin Rhinehart gives a thumbs-up to both Nixon and Bernard on their scheduled vaccination programs. "If your calves are all different ages, it is almost impossible to give them their vaccinations at the right time," he pointed out.
Rhinehart added not only are these producers managing their time efficiently, they are also being paid more for it.
"You have a lot more marketing potential with a controlled-calving season. There is a lot of data that shows if you sell groups of cattle that are similar in size, age and weight, you get more per pound and per head," he said.
The Nixons have an aggressive pasture management program that includes rotational grazing and stockpiling to keep fescue and clover pastures as nutritious and productive as possible. They bale orchardgrass and winter and summer annuals. Their attention to pastures keeps the highest quality forages in front of the cattle that need it the most.
Rhinehart supports the strategy. "If you have a dry cow and a cow in the peak of lactation in the same pasture, you're going to feed one too much and one too little. If everything is calving at the same time, you can manage their nutrition better, whether you are feeding them purchased feed or pasture."
SPRING, FALL OR BOTH?
If you decide to go to a controlled-breeding and calving season, the No. 1 question for most producers is whether it will benefit them most to calve in the fall or spring. Tom Nixon said there's another option: Calve in both seasons.
With two breeding seasons, the Rapidan, Va., cattleman said his high-dollar sires can do double-duty. "Our bulls cost so much, $4,000 to $5,000 each. We need to utilize them better."
Nixon keeps 200 to 300 cows in his spring calving herd. "We can wean them in September and graze them through the winter. We won't have to feed them unless there is a blizzard. We'll have $100 a head less feed costs compared to the calves in the fall calving herd."
The downside to calving in the spring is the mud and the possible snow, as well as more scours problems in the calves.
Nixon and his wife, Kim, also artificially inseminate (AI) a number of their females so spring calving can mean breeding in hot weather. "When I was a kid, we had a large spring herd with a 90-day season. We were breeding in July and August. We did start breeding on May 23 for the spring herd, but we've backed it up to the first of May to beat the heat."
The bulk of Nixon's cows, 500 to 600 head, calve in the fall. Besides better weather for AI breeding, which starts around Thanksgiving, Nixon said there usually isn't as much mud or snow during calving.
However, production management aside, marketing is the No. 1 benefit they see from fall calving, he added.
"We market the calves from the fall herd in August. They finish from February until April, and normally, that market is strong," Nixon said.
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