Wednesday, December 15, 2010

We do things why????

We tend to do most things because, well, because that is the way we have seen it done all of our lives. When we change what we do, it is often because we have read an article in a trade publication or it was something we learned in school. While learning is a good thing, it also a good practice to logically look at, and question the information being given.

An example is a recent article in the online edition of Beef Magazine. In this article, students at the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture, at Curtis, Nebraska are studying the differences between spring and fall calving. In this study the traditional “spring” calving begins with the heifers calving in January with the cows beginning to calve in February. Wouldn't this be more accurately be described as “winter” calving? The heifers calving in the fall begin calving in September. So where are the advantages and savings between the two?

Granted, the fall calvers will have an easier time getting started, as there are seldom any September blizzards. However you will not only be feeding your lactating cows through the winter, but their calves as well. About the only real advantage to changing your calving season to this schedule is you should have less sickness caused from calving in September and will need less bedding. However this is offset by having to feed the calves all winter and stress of possibly weaning them in pens soggy from spring rains or late spring blizzards. Can this really be more that much more productive than the traditional “spring” calving? But why would we want to be calving at either time? The usual answer is to work around haying schedules, moving to summer pasture or diversification. So why are you diversified?

Perhaps you learned about how necessary diversification is in college, or perhaps your family's operation has been diversified for so long you don't remember exactly why you diversified. Either way it is time to ask a few simple questions.
1. Just how profitable can running cattle be when you are forcing yourself to feed at least twice as much hay and supplement you need just to work around your farming schedule?
2. Just how profitable is it to spend money on bedding and extra labor just so you can calve at the worst possible time of the year to fit your farming schedule?
3. Finally, how profitable is it spending the extra money on antibiotics and absorbing the extra mortality rate from calving around your farming schedule?

I don't know about you, but to me the answer to all of those questions is that even if you are making a little profit, you are also throwing a lot of money out the door while putting a lot of added work and stress in your life. If you are running fewer than a thousand cows you would probably be better off leasing your pasture to a neighbor and selling the feed. Your gross income may take a hit, but that would be offset by lower labor and the elimination of feed costs.

If you are running over a thousand head, you would be money ahead by having one person for running the cattle (no farm duties, strictly running the cattle). By doing this, you could cut your winter feed bill by half (or more), cut your mortality rates, reduce your antibiotic costs and totally eliminate the cost of bedding and extra labor for calving. In addition, the person dedicated to the cattle will be able to treat any illnesses, bad eyes or lameness which occurs when the cattle are being ignored because of the farming schedule.

If you are not farming, and are calving in the fall or during the winter you need to consider how much it is actually costing you. I have a friend in Nebraska who works for a large cattle operation. They changed their calving dates to May/June so they could calve on grass instead of hay. That move saved them 2/3 of their winter hay bill. You need to ask yourself a few simple questions as well.
1. Would you be better off having your hay put up on shares rather than footing all of the cost of hay production?
2. Would it be more profitable to calve on green grass, and increase your herd size by utilizing hay meadows for pasture and buying the small(er) amount of hay you need to make it through the winter?
3. If part of your reason for calving early is to get the calves big enough to make it to summer pasture, why can't you calve on your summer range? (realizing that the biggest cause of calving problems is caused from caving during the winter...)

When to calve is only one part of the puzzle in making the maximum profit from our cattle. There are other questions we need to ask ourselves about infrastructure, handling procedures and marketing techniques. But for now, the main question is, “Are we maximizing profitability and sustainability in the way we are doing things now?”

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