Pasture calving means profits


Source: Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs

When you add up the dollars, summer calving wins hands down compared with a traditional production system in Ontario. That’s the bottom line from a long term study at the University of Guelph’s New Liskeard Research Station.

Its pitch dark and minus 20 Celsius. With each breath, steam emerges from the mouths of the cows. The flashlight beam is getting dimmer by the minute … better remember to buy new batteries. You hope that heifer finally calves tonight, because the weather channel is tracking a storm headed this way. You chuckle, thinking about the presentation made by the government livestock specialist last week. He recommended increasing cow numbers to generate more profit. If he had to check the cows on these frosty nights, he wouldn’t be so keen on expansion! Well, you’re 3 weeks into the heart of calving … only 3 or 4 more weeks and you should be able to get a decent night’s sleep.

Does this sound familiar? If the answer is yes, but you wish it was no, keep reading to find out about an alternative to bad weather calving …

Most commercial beef herds in Ontario calve in March and April. While this leads to heavy calves for fall sales, long term profitability is low, and calving management tends to be problematic. To address these issues, a research project was designed to explore a radical change in how the cow herd was managed, by shifting calving from late winter to the heart of summer. This project was conducted at the University of Guelph’s New Liskeard Research Station. The beef research herd was split into summer and winter calving groups, with an average of 60 cows per year in each group. Results presented here cover the first 5 years of the trial.

The traditional group was calved primarily in March, in a well bedded open front barn complete with individual calving pens in an enclosed wing. These cows and calves went to grass around the end of May, with weaning at about 200 days of age in September. Summer cows calved on pasture, mostly in July. This group stayed on grass until the end of the grazing season (usually late September) before moving into the open front barn until weaning at 200 days, in January.

Our results showed that on a herd basis overall productivity per female was slightly higher for the traditionally managed group. This group produced an average of 434 lbs of weaned calf per cow exposed, 9 lbs more than the summer group. The winter calving cows weaned significantly heavier calves (551 lbs vs 531 lbs for the summer calving cows). However, this weight advantage was partially offset by a lower overall pregnancy rate.

One aspect which stood out was the performance of first calf heifers in the summer group. They were markedly superior to those in the winter group for most traits. Summer heifers had a higher pregnancy rate, fewer assisted births and raised a higher percentage of their calves to weaning. Differences between mature cows in each group were minimal for most traits, although summer cows did have a lower calving assist rate.

Productivity (lbs weaned per female exposed)

Winter Summer
Cows 459 431
Heifers 337 400
Herd Basis* 434 425

*80% cows, 20% heifers

So from a production standpoint, summer calving looks like a viable option … but what about profit? With the help of University of Guelph economists Marc Lazenby and Dr. Peter Stonehouse, detailed budgets were constructed.

Feed represents the single largest cost for cow herds. Records showed that there was little difference in the amount of stored feed consumed by each group. When costs were applied to the high and medium quality forage, concentrate (including creep feed) and salt and minerals, there was only a one dollar difference in a cow’s yearly feed bill between the groups. So although these cows were calving at different times of the year, the annual amount of stored feed needed for a biological cycle was very similar. Pasture usage by the summer group was about 10% higher.

The groups start to diverge when other inputs are considered. The winter cows required 25% more bedding ($9 extra per cow), due in part to the need to maintain clean, dry calving pens and a calf loafing area in the main barn. Disease treatment costs were 3 times higher for the winter group, due to higher rates of calfhood disease, particularly scours. This added an additional $10 per cow to the cost of traditional production. And labour requirements were 37% higher for the winter group during the calving season. Costed at $10 per hour, this added an extra $11 per cow to the production bill.

Barns have to be accounted for to give a true picture of the cost of production. We estimated this cost as the depreciation on the capital invested in an open front pole barn for each group, with the addition of a calving wing for the winter group. This simulated the facilities in which this trial was carried out, and gave a facilities charge of $67 per cow for the winter group and $40 per cow for the summer group.

Costs ($ per cow exposed)

Winter Summer
Pasture 68 74
Stored Feed 294 293
Bedding 48 37
Labour (at calving) 41 30
Treatment costs 15 5
Facilities (deprec.) 67 40
Total $ 533 $ 479

The Bottom Line

We calculated the net margin per cow per year by subtracting these costs from the revenue for both groups. Revenue from calves was calculated as the value which would have been obtained if they were marketed at weaning. Prices used were Ontario auction market averages for the simulated sale times (October and January). Cull cows were assumed to be marketed at these times as well, and their contribution was included in the total.

Revenue Per Cow Exposed

Calf Sales 499 489
Cull Cows 112 103
Total 611 592

Net Margin Per Cow Exposed

Revenue 611 592
Costs 533 479
Net Return $ 78 $ 113

This gave a net margin for the summer group of $113 per cow exposed to breeding, which was 45% higher than the $78 per cow realized for the traditional group. So it looks like the summer system was a clear winner in terms of profitability.

Can you expand your herd?

Calving time at some traditional operations in winter and spring seems to be more of a sleep deprivation exercise than an animal management procedure. Suggestions regarding increasing herd numbers made during the calving season are unlikely to be popular. But the combination of pasture season and a full night’s sleep goes a long way to improving one’s attitude towards the cow business and generating the enthusiasm to expand.

One take away for us from this research was that pasture calving required significantly fewer hours of human labour. And the stress level for herdsmen was much reduced as well – no pen checking in the middle of the night, and no worries about chilled calves or firing up that calf heater to save them. Checking for calves on pasture with a 4 wheeler a couple of times a day sure beats the winter scene. And as reported in an earlier article, calving assistance and calf sickness were both minimized with pasture calving.

What if calving time stress and labour were the factors limiting expansion of a cow herd ? How would a switch to summer pasture calving affect things ? Our results showed that pasture calving decreased labour requirements by 25 %. So given a set amount of labour, the number of cows which could be managed could theoretically be increased by 25%. Other costs for feed etc. would increase in proportion to the increase in cow numbers. If you started with a winter calving herd of 80 cows, you should be able to handle about 100 by switching to summer.

Expansion Example (80 cows to 100 cows)

# cows x margin per cow = margin per enterprise

  • Winter 80 hd x $78 per hd = $ 6, 240
  • Summer 100 hd x $113 per hd = $11,300

On an enterprise basis, projected profits jump by close to 80%. This is due to the combined benefits of more profit per head for the summer system, and the ability to manage more cows in the enterprise. There are certainly many other factors to consider (like acquiring the extra feed and/or land), but this gives some serious food for thought for those contemplating expansion of existing herds or a new enterprise start-up.

Lessons we learned from this study:

  1. Cows in the summer pasture setting calved successfully and bonded with their calves, with very little human intervention.
  2. Productivity of first calf heifers from the summer calving system was superior to those managed in a conventional system.
  3. Disease occurrence in newborn calves was significantly less in the summer pasture system compared with winter confinement calving.
  4. Summer calving required significantly lower inputs of bedding, labour and facilities, compared with conventional winter barn calving.
  5. Individual calf weaning weights were lower for summer calves, but profitability was higher.


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