Is Fall Calving Right For You?

Planning for fall-born babies could give you an edge on the market competition.

by Anna O'Brien
PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock

Most folks in the farming community consider spring synonymous with birthing: Foals, calves, lambs and goat kids frequently tend to make an appearance just as the pastures are coming green and food is abundant for mom and, therefore, baby. Biology is purposefully timed this way. Most of our domesticated grazing species are more likely to time conception with a birth that corresponds to days getting longer due to the inevitable link between available food and better weather.

But did you know that there are some benefits to breeding livestock so the young are born in the fall? Here are some aspects to consider when weighing options for the best time to raise young stock.

1. Weather

Calving and lambing in the pleasant months of September, October and early November is easier on everyone. Farmers don’t have as much to worry about as when calves are born in the inevitable cold, wet and variable weather that is frequently encountered in March and April. Generally, there’s also less mud in the dryer fall months, which leads to our second point: health.

2. Health

Fall calves and lambs again have the benefit of warm days and cool but not usually frosty nights, depending on your geographical location. Warm weather means most cow/calf and ewe/lamb pairs are out on pasture instead of housed in barns, and this fresh air and space greatly decreases cases of scours and respiratory disease, which can plague neonates born in early spring.

3. Market Prices

Fall-bred calves can frequently be sold at higher prices the next summer because the market supply at this time is low and demand is high. Additionally, many small ruminant breeders in the U.S. are tapping into markets that have a demand for lamb and goat meat in the spring. Because of the market demand and cycles, pound-for-pound, fall-born calves and lambs fetch a higher price than spring-borns.

4. Feed

One downside of fall calving is the expense and logistics required for feeding lactating dams through the winter. A lactating cow’s nutritional demands peak when the suckling calf is about two months old, meaning extra cost through the winter months when natural forage isn’t available—or at least what is available is low quality.

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5. Breeding Back

More an issue with small ruminants than with cattle, the difficulty in breeding these animals after giving birth needs to be considered. White-faced sheep breeds, like Dorsets, can be difficult to breed in the spring for fall lambs because sheep are generally considered short-day breeders, meaning they naturally breed in the fall for spring births. Dark-faced breeds, like Suffolks, are also a challenge but are known to be a little easier to breed in the off season. A reduced conception rate in your ewe flock may be a result of fall lambing due to the challenge of overcoming the hardwired reproductive physiology.

As with many farm-management decisions, the choice to move from a more traditional spring calving or lambing schedule to a fall schedule is very dependent on your own capabilities and constraints. A trade-off between extra feed in the winter versus increase prices for animals in the spring and summer is a combination of an economical, geographical and environmental evaluation but is worth considering regardless of the size of your herd.

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