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Published May 06, 2013, 09:37 AM

Bad spring for late calving

Heavy snows and unusually cold temperatures this April have made life miserable for many late-calving ranchers.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Like some other area ranchers, John Chute, an Aitkin, Minn., cattle producer, delays his spring calving to take advantage of what’s normally better weather in April and May. This year, however, the strategy backfired for Chute and other late-calving ranchers.

“It’s come back to bite me,” he says.

Heavy snows and unusually cold temperatures this April have made life miserable for many late-calving ranchers. The bad weather is exacerbated because late calvers often, though not always, have less space in barns and sheds in which to protect young calves from the elements.

For many late-calving ranchers, April “was ugly in more ways than one,” says Warren Rusche, cow-calf field specialist with the Watertown field office of the South Dakota State University Extension Service.

When Rusche talked with Agweek in late April, snow was falling again outside his office.

“It’s the winter that will not die,” he says.

Miserable April conditions also were hard on early calving producers, some of whom were nearing the end of calving. But the bad weather was particularly tough on ranchers who began calving in April, Rusche says.

Poor weather conditions force weary ranchers, who put in long hours even during a normal calving season, to fight snow and mud and to spend even more time with their animals, Rusche and others say.

“It’s been tough,” says Jason Zahn, a Towner, N.D., rancher and president of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, who has battled awful calving conditions this spring.

Wet, cold conditions complicate calving in many ways. Feeding animals is more difficult, as is caring for newborn calves and checking on soon-to-deliver cows. Unfavorable weather also increases the danger to young calves of illnesses such as scours, or calf diarrhea.

Traditionally, cattle producers begin calving in late February or early March; many still do. Early calving allows for bigger, more profitable calves if the animals are sold in the fall. It also allows cattle producers who also raise crops to be finished, or nearly so, with calving in time for planting.

Beginning calving in late March or early April reduces the danger from cold, wet weather. The biggest downside is that late-born calves are smaller than when they’re weaned in the fall and fetch less if they’re sold right after weaning.

A growing number of producers, however, are “backgrounding” their calves, or feeding them forage and grains, to build up their weight after weaning. A producer who backgrounds generally is more likely to calf late, officials say.

Ranchers in parts of Montana struggled with bad weather this April, says Mark Boone, an Ingomar, Mont., rancher and president of the Montana Stockmen’s Association.

There’s been a long, slow trend in Montana toward late calving, although it’s difficult to say how common the practice is, he says.

Another trend across the region: some early calving producers have gotten out of livestock altogether to concentrate on raising crops.

Views differ on moisture

Much of the Upper Midwest was dangerously dry going into April, while other areas already were saturated with snow. As a result, producers had a mixed reaction to the April snowstorms.

“If you were really dry and needed it (moisture), you were willing to put up with it,” Rusche says. “Folks who had some snow weren’t so tolerant.”

In North Dakota, some ranchers needed moisture for their pastures and hayfields, while other producers already had too much snow, says Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association.

Overall, the April snowstorms were both “a blessing and a curse,” she says.

Despite problems this April, it’s unlikely that many cattle producers who calf late will switch to earlier calving, Rusche and others say.

Many factors go into deciding when to start calving, and changing the start of calving isn’t done easily or lightly, he says.