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Fall Calving in North Dakota


By Brian Kreft

A fall calving herd was established at CGREC in the fall of 1992 to gather a data base to determine the economics of fall calving in North Dakota.

North Dakota cattle producers are faced with many decisions and must utilize their resources as efficiently and profitably as possible. These resources can be influenced greatly by the time of year that calving is scheduled. Feed quality and quantity as well as investments in facilities and equipment can be affected by the selected calving season.


Fall calving may offer several advantages for producers, including:

  1. Ideal calving weather: fall calving offers ideal conditions with no worries of winter storms. Producers report almost no scour problems.
  2. Economic and management flexibility: by calving in the fall, calves are ready to be sold at non-traditional times of the year. They can be sold at a premium because of limited supplies of cattle at these times. Calves can be sold in May or June as grass cattle or pastured and sold as yearlings. Cows are also at a premium in the spring when the fall calves are weaned and when cull cows are sold.
  3. Bull requirements: bull costs are greatly reduced by running both a spring and fall herd. The same bull can be used for both herds.
  4. Stocking rate flexibility: in drought years, calves can be sold at weaning. When forage is adequate, they can be pastured as stockers.
  5. Multiple use of facilities: fall calves can utilize well protected areas during winter and be moved out before spring calving begins.
  6. Labor: fall calving may help to spread out the yearly work load.
  7. Cash flow: since calves are sold at non-traditional times, income is spread more evenly over a calendar year.

There may however, be some disadvantages to fall calving. They include:

  1. Feed requirements: the fall calving cow may require higher levels of nutrition to keep performance at acceptable levels.
  2. Labor conflicts with harvest: most ranchers are also involved with farming. Fall calving can conflict with harvest but does not interfere with spring planting.
  3. Facilities: fall calves do require a well protected area during severe winter weather. Windbreak fence and bedding are a requirement in this area.
  4. Animal performance: performance of fall calves is uncertain.


Nineteen young open cows from the CGREC herd and 18 open cows from a local rancher were acquired in the fall of 1992 to start a fall calving herd. Additional open cows from the spring calving herd have been added each fall. Typically, the breeding season for the fall calving cows begins about November 1 and continues for about 45 days. This means that the cows begin calving about the second week of August and are done by October 1. Winter feeding starts about November 1. Cows with calves are fed approximately 28 pounds of alfalfa - grass hay per head per day until weaning in mid-March. Open cows, added from the spring herd, are wintered on lower quality prairie hay. These cows, once bred, have low requirements because they are not lactating and are in their first trimester of pregnancy. Calves are weaned in mid-March to mid-April. They are then backgrounded until turnout onto native grass in May. They are on pasture until about September 1. Cows are pastured on tame grass pastures starting in late April. They are then moved to native pastures in June.

Results and Discussion

Table 1 shows the cow performance from the fall calving cows. We started with 37 cows in 1992 and have followed this same group of cows through four calf crops to date. The cows averaged 1176 pounds when we started this project. We wintered these cows on low quality CRP hay and straw the first winter, since they were not lactating. We wanted the cows to maintain their weight the first winter and they weighed 1185 at spring turnout. Eighty-one percent of the cows had conceived. The cows gained a tremendous amount of weight and condition during the summer and weighed 1417 pounds on December 10, 1993. This was about 90 days after the cows had calved. The extra weight allows us to restrict their diet somewhat and utilize some of their excess condition. Table 1 also shows how the fall calving cows have been able to maintain their weight over the years. The pregnancy rate on these cows has been variable with a high of 96.6% and a low of 81.1%. We may need to improve the nutrition of these fall calving cows prior to and during the breeding season to improve the rebreeding of these cows.

Table 1 - Fall Cow Performance.          
  1992-93 1993-94 1994-95 1995-96 1996-97
Number 37 30 28 25 23
Average prebreeding weight (Fall) 1176 1417 1364 1342 1383
Average weight at weaning (Spring) 1185 1314 1296 1272 1284
Conception rates 81.1% 96.6% 89.3% 88.0% 92.0%

Table 2 compares adjusted 205 day weaning weights of our fall born calves. Only calves from similar sires were used for this comparison. In 1994, the spring born calves were 23 pounds heavier (577 lbs. vs 600 lbs.) than the fall born calves. The year 1995 also showed an adjusted weaning weight advantage for the spring born calves of 26 pounds (550 lbs. vs 576 lbs.). 1996 showed an advantage of 43 pounds and 1997 showed a 38 pound weaning weight advantage. The fall born calves had a four-year average weaning weight of 566 pounds and the spring born calves averaged 599 pounds. On average for these four years, the spring born calves had adjusted weaning weights 33 pounds heavier than our fall born calves.

Table 2. Adjusted Calf Weaning Weights.      






1994 577 600 +23
1995 550 576 +26
1996 547 590 +43
1997 591 629 +38
Average 566 599 +33

Table 3 shows the performance of the fall born calves during their summer stocker phase. The first two years, 1994 and 1995, only steers were grazed while the data from 1996 and 1997 also include heifers. The calves have averaged 581 pounds at spring turnout, with a high of 631 pounds in 1995 and a low of 544 pounds in 1997. The lower weights in 1997 were certainly caused by the long and severe winter.

The calves have been taken off grass at an average of 791 pounds around September 5. They have averaged 116 days on grass over the four-year period with an average daily gain of 1.81 pounds. No supplemental feed other than salt and mineral were provided during this summer period.

Table 3. Stocker Phase.          
  1994 1995 1996 1997 Average
Average weight at spring turnout (lbs.) 580 631 570 544 581
Average weight in fall (lbs.) 825 821 734 783 791
Average daily gain (lbs.) 2.25 1.60 1.46 1.91 1.81
Turnout dates 5/7 5/11 5/15 5/14 5/11
Fall weigh date 8/24 9/7 9/4 9/16 9/5
Days on grass 109 119 112 125 116

In 1995, we decided to evaluate our fall born steers in the feed lot and rail. We compared these steers to a group of spring born steers of similar breeding. The spring born steers were finished in Kansas while the fall born steers were finished in Fargo. Table 4 shows the feedout information. The spring born steers had lighter start weights (614 lbs. vs 775 lbs.), but heavier final weights (1299 lbs. vs 1219 lbs.). The spring born steers were on feed 99 more days than the fall borns (223 vs 124). The fall born calves gained faster, (3.57 vs 3.08 ADG) yet both groups had a similar percentage of carcasses grading choice (55.6% to 57.0%). Since the spring born calves are on feed longer and had higher feed costs, as well as lower selling prices, they lost $105.96 per head. The fall born steers returned a profit of $44.11 per head. 1996 was probably not typical of most years with a skyrocketing of the corn market and a plunge in the fed cattle market. We will probably follow more groups of calves in the future.

Table 4. 1995 Calf Feedout.

  Spring Fall
Number of head 40 21
Average start wt. (lbs.) 614 775
Average final wt. (lbs) 1299 1219
Days on feed 223 124
Average daily gain (lbs.) 3.08 3.57
% choice 55.6% 57.0%
Profit/loss -$105.96 +$44.11

Many producers have expressed concern over increased feed costs for fall calving cows. We have recorded average feed intakes of our fall calving cows. Both spring and fall calving cows are fed long stem grass or alfalfa-grass hay from large round bales. Bales are weighed periodically, but final consumptions are only an estimate and include spoilage and waste. Table 5 shows the 1995 feed consumption of the spring and fall calving cows. The cows are fed similar diets, but for different lengths of time and at different times of the year. We broke it down into gestation diets and late gestation-lactation diets. The gestation diet is generally lower quality and includes CRP hay, prairie hay and sometimes straw. The spring calving cows are fed this diet for about 90 days starting on about December 1. The fall calving cows are fed the gestation diet for about 30 days after weaning their calves in early April. We valued this hay at $35/ton. The late gestation-lactation diet is fed to the spring calving cows starting about 30 days prior to calving until turnout to pasture. A similar diet is fed to the fall calving cows starting at breeding time in early November until weaning in late March. This diet consists of better quality hay, including alfalfa-grass hay and oat hay. The feed cost for the fall calving cows is estimated at about $20 higher than the spring calving cows ($144.00 vs $124.20). The total pounds of hay consumed is very similar between the two groups at 6,120 pounds for the spring calvers and 6,600 pounds for the fall calvers. Fall calving is a viable alternative for area producers. The project is being continued to increase the database on all aspects of fall calving in the Coteau area of North Dakota.

Table 5. Cow Feed Consumption.    
  Spring Fall
Lb. per day 30 30
Days on feed 90 30
Total hay 2700 900
Cost ($35/ton) $47.25 $15.75
Late gestation-lactation    
Lb. per day 38 38
Days on feed 90 150
Total hay 3420 5700
Cost ($45/ton) $76.95 $128.25
Total feed cost $124.20 $144.00
Total pounds of hay 6120 6600

March 1998