Cows need to conceive and calve early to earn their keep.

University of Missouri Extension beef cow-calf specialist Jordan Thomas said managing for a short or even an "ultra-short" calving season should determine which cows get to stay on the farm.

Thomas and MU Extension beef nutrition specialist Eric Bailey are collaborating on a multiyear project to carry out an ultra-short calving season at MU's Southwest Research Center with the goal of managing for a calving season of only about 30 days through good reproductive management and strategic marketing of late-conceiving cows.

Cows that conceive late in the breeding season go on to calve late in the calving season. As a result, they wean younger, lighter-weight calves, Thomas said.

But those cows cost just about the same amount to maintain all year long, and Thomas said those costs matter, especially when forage is in short supply. Carrying low-productivity cows, especially through the winter months when feed costs are highest, drags down profits.

When deciding if cows stay or go, begin by calculating carrying capacity of the farm or ranch. Matching carrying stocking rate with carrying capacity is essential if the goal is to maintain cows through the winter with lower supplementation or hay costs, Thomas said. Knowing the number of animal units that the land can support via grazing alone helps producers decide whether to destock or buy feed.

"Most of us are used to thinking about destocking cows in drought conditions," Thomas said. "We carry low-productivity cows until we run out of feed. But really, we need to ask if something else is more profitable. Those cows are eating up a forage resource that we could use in a much more profitable way."

Producers, Thomas said, can think of their herds as an investment portfolio.

Consider the input costs and the equity tied up in a cow, and ask if that cow generates an acceptable return on investment. A hidden cost of cow-calf production is cow depreciation, or the decline in a cow's value from one year to the next. By strategically marketing later-conceiving cows, Thomas said, producers can help control some of that cost.

"Although it can feel like failure when we have to cull cows, we shouldn't look at strategically marketing late-conceiving cows as failing," Thomas said. "Look at it as an opportunity to free up equity that is tied up in animals that are poor investments. That is always a wise decision, especially when approaching the winter months without enough stockpiled forage."

Calving distribution

Recording calf birthdates can help producers track calving distribution.

"Evaluating a calving distribution takes very little time but can provide valuable insight into reproductive performance and productivity of the herd," University of Missouri Extension veterinarian Craig Payne said.

Payne tracks calving distributions as part of a three-year project to help beef producers improve whole-herd recordkeeping. That's important, he said, because dams of early-born calves have more time to recover before the next breeding season and because early-born calves have longer to gain weight, giving the owner bigger profits at marketing time.

Begin tracking calving distribution by establishing the date of the initial counting period. Once the start date is determined, count the number of calves born in the first 21 days of the calving season and divide that number by the total number of calves born. Repeat the process for days 22-42, days 43-63 and after day 63. Count all full-term calves born, dead or alive.

Finally evaluate the calving distribution of first-calf heifers separately from the mature herd. Their breeding season often is earlier or managed differently.

With the herd's distribution determined, compare it to the industry standard. Benchmarks for the first, second and third 21-day periods are 65%, 23% and 7% respectively. The remaining 5% of calves are born later than 63 days.

"If your distribution is unfavorable, meaning a higher percentage of calves are born later in the calving season, it could indicate one or more problems and will require more investigation," Payne said.

Factors to consider are nutrition, bull power or fertility, disease or conditions that cause early embryonic loss or infertility or a mismatch between herd genetics and environment.

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