Did you know that calving during the growing season over spring and summer is one of the best strategies in grass-fed beef or dairy production?

In this article, we’ll explain exactly why, so stick around and let’s explore all the exciting possibilities together!

Calving during the growing season, if done right, can create a ripple of positive effect on your entire farming operation. It can increase conception rates, enhance fertility, cut down on expenses, cut down on labour requirement and keep your cows happy and healthy!

So keep reading and I’ll tell you how calving on pastures will result in three major benefits – more nutrition, more fertility and therefore – more conception.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a hardworking farmer in Australia, Canada or South Africa. The best time to calve is always during the growing season. Why? Because this is the right season for your cows to fatten up, and reach a body condition score of 7 or more before they calve.

Calving on pasture

In the growing season, the grass is lush and choc-a-bloc full of healthy nutrients for your cow. The weather is warm which means that cows feel more active. And because of the warm weather, they’re meeting their daily step count. We all know that more exercise before birth equals easier births!

Calves grazing pasture at Robin Hill
Calves grazing pasture at Robin Hill

Benefits of calving on pasture:

Lighter birth weights:

When cattle give birth during the growing season, the gestation period is much shorter.

Late winter or early spring calving: 285 days

Calving during the growing season: 280 days

Since the cows are much healthier during the growing season, the newborns slide right out earlier. And since they’re early, their birth weights are lighter.

Quality colostrum:

The colostrum that the calf drinks up during the 12 – 24 hours right after birth will help shape and determine the calf’s immune system until it starts to develop its own antibodies at 3 months of age. Since a cow’s health is at its best during the warm growing season, the colostrum is also at its best!

Calves born on warm and sunny pastures will instinctively learn to stand and walk much faster than it would have on ice or snow. Sunny skies also mean bigger appetites and bigger appetites means that they’re going to be downing that colostrum real quick!

he colostrum that the calf drinks 12-24 hours after birth helps shape the calf’s immune system for 3 months
The colostrum that the calf drinks 12-24 hours after birth helps shape the calf’s immune system for 3 months. Source: Pikist

Disease pathogens:

When a calf is born, it is surrounded by bacteria. Late winter and early spring is the right time for this bacteria to thrive. Add to this all the easy ways in which it can spread to other cows – via mud puddles, dirty bedding, udders and snow – and you have a huge problem on your hands.

In summer, on the other hand, bacteria do not thrive as easily, thus reducing the risk of disease. A lush cover of grass keeps bacteria buried in the soil and even if there is a contaminated area, the sun’s rays are ready to zap them and make them clean!

Udders:

Oral-fecal contamination is one of the main causes of diseases being spread among newborns. These nosy little newborns are always poking around and sucking on udders that are close to the ground, thus coming into contact with bacteria.

In summer, cow udders are continuously being wiped clean by the tall grass as the cows wander about. There aren’t any bacteria-filled puddles for the udders to come in contact with and so they stay clean and shiny!

Cow bedding:

Since calves aren’t furry creatures, they need warm bedding to lie on when they’re born. Just like how newborn babies need super soft and cosy bed sheets and blankets to lie on, newborn calves also need livestock bedding like straw or sawdust piles to keep warm in winter.

Thus, farmers end up spending a lot of money on livestock bedding and shelter when instead, they could just leave it to nature.

Dairy calves resting on hay in a feedlot.
Dairy calves resting on hay in a feedlot.

Overall calving management:

Let’s face it. Even for you as a farmer, it’s going to be a lot easier calving in summer. You don’t have to worry about going down to the feedlots in the thick of winter, like an eskimo-mummy, waiting for your cows to calve as the radio reports that a storm is headed your way. During summer calving your cows are warm and happy, and so are you!

Also, you’ll lower cleaning, feed and bedding expenses, along with lower health costs since your calves are almost disease-free in summer – it adds up to quite a lot. One of the major attractions of summer calving, really.

So, let’s sum up all the different ways you’re going to benefit from a summer calving program:
  1. Cows have access to rich, juicy grass right before calving
  2. Cows get all their energy from high-quality pasture
  3. Farmers don’t need to spend their resources on hay and supplements thanks to the availability of rich, natural grass
  4. Calves don’t fall sick because the weather is warm
  5. Lower birth weight in cows means lesser labour is required at calving

Match your breed to your marketing program

Cow-calf producers usually target a particular calving season. This helps producers reach a market date for their cows, and aim to see a price that’s larger than their cost of production.

One farmer may want all the cattle to finish at the same time. And another farmer might want a longer finishing season so there’s a continuous supply of grass-fed beef to his customers.

Or, you may have customers buying yearling bulls from you during spring. If you change your calving season and your bulls are only 9 months old during the time of sale, that’s not going to work.

Your breed needs to match your marketing and production strategy. Draw up a plan and let it begin from the date that your cows give birth.

Your plan needs to cover everything from birth to slaughter.

It needs to address all these questions:
  1. When is your cow herd going to calve?
  2. How long will it take to finish cattle for slaughter?
  3. What is the length of the growing season?
  4. Will you be able to maintain weight gain on pasture outside of the growing season?
  5. For which market are you producing beef?

Now, regardless of the calving date, there are still some protocols to follow for a successful calving season like:

  • Management of the breeding season
  • Body condition scores – the score used to estimate nutritional status via energy reserves in cows. The ideal score is 5-6. BCS can range from 1 to 9, where 1 is very thin and 9 is obese.
  • Vaccination exercises
  • Neonatal care

Above all, you need to consider overall factors and your own personal situation if you’re thinking about switching to calving on pastures. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.

Calves in a barn that are still on milk and concentrates
Calves in a barn that are still on milk and concentrates at Robin Hill

Jason Ahola, a beef productions systems specialist at Colorado State University talks about how though the death rates decrease, the per cent calf crop increases and farmers don’t need to be at the mercy of a volatile hay market, there are still some cons that need to be seriously considered when it comes to summer calving.

Hot weather during summer is known to reduce fertility in bulls and also result in embryo loss in cows.

So, the bottom line is, even if you’re convinced and think that summer calving is the way to go – you have to plan, plan and plan! You have to ask yourself some hard questions and make sure it fits into your overall management system.

Calving on pasture doesn’t just mean putting your cows out to graze and letting things run naturally, it’s about actually developing a whole system from scratch and making sure it works for you. And once it does, there’s no way to go but up!

This is why we put so much attention into grazing grass and why our company is called Pasture.io

Please leave a comment below and we promise to reply.

Happy Farming!

- The Dedicated Team of Pasture.io, 21 September 2020