Cost savings, easier workload, better animal and rancher health are driving a shift to calve with nature in South Dakota.
As ranchers tire of animal loss and human stress due to calving during extreme March and April weather, winter calving traditions are being re-examined in South Dakota. Instead, May and June calving is becoming a valuable management tool of choice.
More ranchers are taking the calving with nature to heart. Heifers and cows do more of the work by calving during May and June. This change requires less labor, feed and vet bills while delivering more live calves born healthier on green grass. This late May timing mirrors deer giving birth to fawns when conditions are best for their survival.
Quality of life for cow, calf and rancher, along with improved ranch profitability, are the most significant reasons these ranchers push calving later.
Blizzards change mindsets
Rancher Mike Blaalid had always calved in early April on the J & M Ranch near Mitchell, SD. But back-to-back April blizzards in 2018 and 2019 ended his belief in safe mid-April calving. “When I got 12 inches of snow on April 15th, that was the last straw for me—after that, pushing calving dates back two weeks wasn’t a big deal.
“In 2021, I started calving on May 3. We had slow grass growth early due to cool weather, but it really worked out well timing it with nature. As a result, I think the cattle stay in a little better shape, and I don’t have to feed as much in the winter,” he adds.
Blaalid likes the easier maintenance of the herd, where the animals spend two to four weeks on grass before they start calving. “I can meet some of my grass goals of grazing and knocking back cool-season invasive grasses, and the cows can have healthier calves on green grass. It just really works for me, and it’s less stress on everybody.”
Cost savings beats tradition
Quinn, SD rancher Pat Guptill believes building healthy rangeland soil combined with later calving leads to better economics and the potential for year-around grazing.
“Since 80% of the cost to wean a calf is winter feed costs, we cut our feed costs almost in half by shifting to late-May calving, when the deer are giving birth in our area,” Guptill says. “When I last studied my costs seven years ago, it cost us just under $450 to wean per calf. At that time, the average cost to wean a calf in South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Montana and Wyoming was $860.”
Guptill realized his costs and labor dropped dramatically when he stopped starting the tractor every day from November to April. When he shifted from March to May calving, his diesel fuel use dropped from 1,200 to 300 gallons. “All I do now is roll a bale of hay out every other day or every third day, so they get about 7 to 12 lbs. of hay, given my year-round grazing strategy,” he says. “That provides enough protein to keep them going and help digest grass better.”
March calving expense
Ranchers understand the importance of high-quality feed in winter to maintain a cow’s body condition score (BCS) of 5.5 to 6 to calve in March and rebreed within 55 days. “That’s why March calving is expensive,” Guptill adds. “For our ranch, we wean in March with cows at a BCS of 4 to 4.5. Then the cows gain weight from grazing March through mid-May. By May 20, our cows have a BCS of 6 without buying any feed. Mother Nature feeds them across every acre of my ranch.”
Guptill recommends using a sharp pencil on the amount of savings possible, rather than simply ranching by the winter calving tradition. “Since we can’t make our calves worth more, we must raise calves with fewer inputs. And the fastest way we can do that is to calve later in the season and cut your feed costs. That takes a lot of stress off the family and your life as well,” he says.
Calf size isn’t the main concern with Guptill. “You don’t have to have that big March calf. My May calves are always lighter, but I’m selling more pounds of beef because I don’t lose as many calves. March blizzards not only cause greater calf loss during calving, but the added stress on those that survive also creates problems for a long time in the animals.”
Blaalid agrees and actually culls cows to achieve smaller framed animals that perform better on grass. “I’m okay with some smaller birth weight calves in the spring because it’s a little easier on everybody. We want calm cattle that move easily and cull animals with feisty attitudes.”
Calf and grass health benefits
Vet bills are another cost savings. Blaalid says they’re not treating as many animals. “Having calves on fresh green grass starts them off on the right foot and helps keep them healthy and gaining weight all grazing season. We don’t have to do much to the calves after they’re born in May.”
Guptill adds that they used to spend $2,500 a year doctoring cattle for a 125-cow herd on large pastures. “Today, even with a ranch that ranges from 150 to 300 cows, our vet bill dropped to less than $50 a year. In 2021 it was less than $25.”
Calving in May gives these ranchers a better sense of pasture health, too. Checking calves in May provides an excellent chance to learn what’s going on in your grass, what plants the animals are targeting and how pastures are holding up, Blaalid says. “We’re working hard to manage the invasive grasses for early grazing benefit while encouraging more native plants through grazing management. And we have added some cover crop grazing to supply more nutrients for the cattle and to build soil health,” he adds.
Start with a plan
Guptill admits that shifting to calving in sync with nature takes planning and an openness to change and to make mistakes. “If you move your calving date to where it’s supposed to be and cut your haying and feeding in half, you’re going to be able to run 75% of the cows you have right now in a season-long grazing program,” he says. “Find a mentor with experience and figure out how many animals you can graze in 365 days. Then as you gain experience, you’ll be able to run more cows but not double your herd in less than five years.”
Watch other ranchers describe their journey in the video “Calving on Grass: SD Ranchers on the Benefits of Alternative Calving Dates.” Learn more details in this Calving on Grass Q&A and Fact Sheet. And find mentors and listen to ranchers discuss their journey of change in the South Dakota Grassland Coalition’s excellent 25-video series on Alternative Calving Dates.