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Published April 14, 2014, 10:03 AM

April bringing better calving conditions than 2013

Like many people involved with beef cattle on the Northern Plains, Warren Rusche has bad memories of April 2013. “It was a back-to-back-to-back freight train of blizzards,” says Rusche, cow-calf field specialist with the Watertown field office of the South Dakota University Extension Service.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Like many people involved with beef cattle on the Northern Plains, Warren Rusche has bad memories of April 2013.

“It was a back-to-back-to-back freight train of blizzards,” says Rusche, cow-calf field specialist with the Watertown field office of the South Dakota University Extension Service.

This April is shaping up much better, despite recent blizzards and the exceptionally cold winter. Calving is in full gear across the Upper Midwest, and ranchers and others say the season is going relatively well.

“We’re not seeing many problems so far,” says Chad Wild, a vet with the New Salem (N.D.) Veterinary Clinic.

An early April snowstorm didn’t dump as much snow as anticipated, which helps, says Emily Krekelberg, extension educator, ag production systems-livestock specialist with the University of Minnesota Extension in Stearns County.

Even before that, producers generally had fared as well as could be expected through the cold winter, she says.

Many cattle producers invested in expensive, high-quality feed that helped cows through the cold winter and kept them in good condition for calving, Rusche says.

To be sure, the winter was hard on some livestock, especially calves born during cold weather in February and early March.

“We’ve had some calves lose ears (because of cold temperatures) in our area,” says Greg Wichman, a Hilger, Mont., producer.

Early vs. late

Traditionally, cattle producers in the region begin calving in late February or early March. Starting early allows bigger calves if the animals are sold in the fall. It also allows cattle producers who raise crops to be done with calving in time for planting.

In recent years, however, a growing number of producers have begun calving in late March or early April. Doing so means late-born calves are smaller when they’re weaned in the fall, but it also reduces the danger from wet, cold weather.

The strategy backfired in April 2013, however. Late-calvers were hit with weeks of heavy snows and unusually cold temperatures. The bad weather complicated feeding animals, caring for newborn claves and checking on soon-to-deliver cows. It also raised the threat to young calves from illnesses such as scours, or calf diarrhea.

Early calvers also were hurt by the cold, wet conditions in April 2013. But most of them were finishing up with calving by then, so they generally avoided the worst of the bad weather.

The wet spring of 2013 was a mixed blessing for area livestock producers. Though it made calving miserable, it also recharged pastures and hay fields hurt by the drought of 2012.

Dry, but not too dry

Moisture conditions across the region generally are good this spring. Still, livestock producers generally would welcome some April moisture to boost new growth in hay fields and pastures.

“Dry conditions would be good (for calving). But we don’t want it to too dry,” Krekelberg says.

Though calving has gone well so far, extended wet conditions could still cause major problems.

Rusche says he’s optimistic this April won’t be as bad for calving as April 2013.

As of April 6, calving was 52 percent complete in South Dakota, 50 percent complete in Montana and 30 percent complete in North Dakota, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

NASS doesn’t estimate Minnesota’s calving completion rate.

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