Fall-Calving, Grass-Finished Beef

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Bruce King asks, “why fall  calving?”  The short answer is “serendipity”.  The long answer is the rest of this post.

When I split my farm from my parents’ farm, I had to figure out how I was going to farm and keep the beef and pork markets I had built up with Jordandal Farms supplied.  With a much smaller land base I realized I would need to purchase more of my inputs.  So I started purchasing spring-born feeder steers in October when they were weaned from their moms.

I take the steers through the winter on stored feed, shooting for a pound and a half gain per head per day.  They then go onto the lush spring pastures, gaining three pounds per day in May and June.  I start butchering the biggest steers at the end of June weighing around 1000 lbs.  As the summer pastures fade I start to graze hay fields to keep high-quality feed available at all times.  I continue butchering the biggest steers at a rate of eight per month and they’re all gone by October.

But back to the fall-calving herd.  Even though I realized I needed to buy feeder steers to keep my market supplied, I was a little sad I wouldn’t have any cows or calves.  The breeding through birth process is always fun to experience.

But the fall before our farms split up saw many cows returning to estrus, after the herd bulls had been removed.  This is a bad sign because it means the cows are “open” and will not have a calf the next spring.  We sell almost all of the open cows for beef, as it doesn’t pay to feed a cow for a nonproductive year.

But in a bit of serendipity, the neighbor’s bull jumped the fence and spent a month with our cows.  When the veterinarian pregnancy-checked our cows, sure enough many were open, more than usual.  Some of the cows we considered best in the herd.  I realized some of these cows may be short-bred by the neighbor’s bull, (less than a month and the vet wouldn’t be able to determine).

So I decided to start a fall-calving herd.  I picked out the best cows, ones the vet said were reproductively sound even though they were open.  And I moved them to my farm and borrowed one of my parents’ bulls to breed any cows which weren’t bred by the neighbor’s bull.  The neighbor’s bull was black and he sired the black calves last year.  I had 8 black calves and 4 red ones.

I wasn’t sure where this herd would be, as I didn’t think I had room for them on my farm during the grazing months.  Luckily I was able to rent a neighbor’s wooded pasture from May 1st to November 1st.  After November 1st I bring them home and turn the bull out with them.

I wasn’t sure how the small calves would handle the winter, but last winter they did fine, nursing their mothers and eating some hay.  I weaned the calves from their moms at the end of April.  The weaned calves really took off on the spring pastures.  They spent the summer grazing with the feeder steers.  And now I’ve started butchering them weighing around 1000 lbs.

I think the economics of the fall-born calves is better than purchasing feeder steers, because although the cow and calf eat more hay than a feeder steer, I don’t have to spend the money purchasing the weaned calf.  Furthermore, the cow will have a salvage value at the end of her productive life.

If I didn’t need to keep a consistent supply of beef, and could just sell quarters to customers at one time in the fall, I think I would only have a fall-calving herd and market all the fall-born calves the following November.

What makes both systems economical is taking the animals through only one winter.  Feed is a huge cost in beef production, and the cost of winter feed dwarfs the cost of summer pasture.

The photos were taken recently and show two, fifteen month old fall-born calves above and below, from a different angle.  They weigh about a  thousand lbs and will be butchered in a few weeks.

The top photo also shows one of my fall-calving cows on the right.  She is eight years old and had something wrong with her udder so I took her calf away from her.  She is one of the biggest cows, I’m sure weighing over 1500 lbs.  She also will be butchered soon.

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