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  • Writer's picturejphaskell

Winter isn’t a surprise: Plan ahead when turning in bulls

Updated: May 26, 2021

We’ve all heard the saying, “Poor planning on your part, doesn’t constitute an emergency on my part.” I often imagine a scenario where future me says this to past me.

Right now in May along the Wyoming/Montana border, the grass is green, calves are running and playing. Cows are shedding hair. A few neighbors are branding. The grass is growing slowly because it’s still cool at night. Amid all the signs of abundance, it’s easy to forget what the prior 3 months have been like.

Remembering the bitter cold weather this last winter (2021) created a striking contrast in my mind. First it was the pictures of calving in South Dakota at -21*F. The next week, that same artic air made it to Texas. I have vastly different reactions to these two extremes.

If you experience below zero temps and snow in south Texas, you are witnessing an incredibly rare event. I feel terrible for your plight. South Texas is prepared for HEAT! They just do NOT get much snow and cold. They are justifiably not prepared for it: it’s VERY rare.

On the other hand, if you live in South Dakota, Montana, or Wyoming you know what winter is like. It’s COLD! A LOT! Almost every year. If you turned bulls in April or May, my sympathy for you is limited. I feel terrible for your cows and their calves. When you step on a rake, you get the other end. Our choices come with consequences, if you turned the bulls in, you get to calve them out (if your neighbor’s bull got into your heifers early, that’s slightly different, but it’s up to you to make certain it doesn’t happen again).

As my father says, we work where Mother Nature bats last. Fool me once, shame on me; fool me twice, shame on you. If you’re planning for mild winter weather on the northern plains or in the Rockies, you’re a special kind of optimist.

But let’s add some more compelling information. Ranchers are often driven to calve earlier to ship bigger calves in the fall. Well, the jokes on us, because most of the time the price difference per head between bigger and smaller calves is trivial in the fall. Sometimes a 4-cwt calf brings more than a 6-cwt. So, we don’t actually increase our gross income very much. And in doing so, we usually add a lot more expense which reduces our net income. On February 1, a March calving cow requires a lot more energy (i.e. feed) in cold weather than a cow bred to calve in May or June. Then there’s the labor. And maybe a building. And the discounts for frozen ears and tails. And the ones that don’t make it. Oh, and the scours.

I don’t have any data, but I’d be willing to bet that human injuries also increase when the weather is really bad and no body’s sleeping well. Nothing kills quality of life like a trip from the calving lot to the ER.

Over and over again, the most profitable ranches calve onto green grass. It’s never perfect, but calving later increases our chance of calving onto good feed and calving in mild weather. And it’s usually a lot more comfortable for everyone involved.

I realize that not everyone can do it, but calving date is usually a choice. Choose wisely. Your future self will thank you.

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