Fall Calving Herds Face Drought Problems, Decisions

Fodder for Thought

Drought-caused early calving, lower milk supplies and poor rebreeding could help identify more cows to cull.

Published on: August 31, 2012

The drought has taken its toll on many beef producers this year and its impact will most likely be felt even into next year.

Producers in drought with fall calving herds will face especially unique challenges which will require special management considerations.

Research has shown that heat stress, such as that seen during this year’s drought, has the ability to shorten gestation length in fall calving beef cows. Along with premature calving, calves born in the fall have a tendency to have reduced birth weights when compared to those calved in spring.

This proves to be a legitimate concern as an early August extension report from Missouri noted births of premature calves to heat-stressed cows in the state, some born as much as a month early. Initial death losses were high. However, some producers had calves born closer to predicted dates.

David Patterson, University of Missouri beef reproduction specialist, explained heat stress in cows reduces blood flow to the uterus, which in turn triggers premature calving. The heat stress is further increased when nights do not cool down. Decreased milk yields in heat-stressed cattle were also seen.

Patterson also noted cows bred to calving-ease bulls should be watched closely as they are more likely than others to calve early. These factors combined with the lack of desirable, nutritious forage and fly problems make this year’s fall calving season risky business for those in drought areas.

Cows nearing parturition require a rising plane of nutrition. If unable to acquire the necessary nutrition serious consequences for both calf and mother will be seen. Monitoring body condition of cows using body condition scoring (BCS) will be a help to ensure that fall calving cows maintain a positive energy balance prior to calving. Cows with decreased BCS ≤ 4.5 are at higher risk for calving difficulties and will also have reduced reproductive performance post calving. It is recommended cows calve at an optimum BCS of 5 to 5.5. This website from Angus Productions, Inc., provides a good source of information on body condition scoring of cattle: http://www.cowbcs.info/

With the high cattle prices we're seeing, some producers may opt to use these challenges as a factor in making culling decisions in their herds. By eliminating cows that are unable to maintain ideal BCS on available lower-quality forages, producers will be able to sort out the most efficient cows in the herd. In the end the cows that can do more with less will be the ones you want to keep around.

The 2012 drought has given the cattle industry a lot to think about. Going into the future, factors such as drought planning, selecting for cattle that can survive with the least amount of inputs and observation of more stringent management practices will play into who stays and who goes.