Sustainable Rangeland Based Beef Cattle Production Systems

1995 Annual Report for SW95-007

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1995: $155,260.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1997
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $168,100.00
Region: Western
State: Wyoming
Principal Investigator:
Michael A. Smith
University of Wyoming

Sustainable Rangeland Based Beef Cattle Production Systems



1. Determine animal productivity, feed requirements, economic characteristics and inherent risks of herds calved at conventional early dates and later spring dates from a) cooperator ranch herd records and during the period of this study and b) experimentally from a portion of the University herd during the period of this study.
2. Determine the production and economic characteristics along with the financial feasibility of alternative winter forage resources or hay processing techniques including baled or stacked hay, windrowing hay only and feeding from the windrow, and pastures planted to species such as Basin wildrye (Elymus cinerius) that provides forage accessible to cattle even with snow cover.
3. Conduct a technology transfer program that includes workshops, seminars, and/or ranch tours, Extension publications, popular press and trade publication articles, news releases, and refereed journal articles.


This project has allowed productivity and cost comparisons of late winter born and mid-late spring born calves for four years. Case studies of producers utilizing late spring calving frequently combined with holistic management processes have been developed. Economic analyses of annual cow cost for feed for cows calving at dates from February to August and efficacy of planting Basin wild rye for winter grazing were developed. Technology transfer activities have been implemented and most publications completed.

Conventional and late breeding seasons were initiated on an experimental University-owned herd in 1995. Weaning weights of these calves showed a small advantage for the earlier calving dates. However the additional weight of heavier calves is not sufficiently large to compensate for the additional winter feeding required to support cows’ nutritional needs for conventional late winter calving dates. The lower labor and higher percentage of late-born calves weaned provide additional benefits.

Case studies describing management strategies and results of implementing late season calving on cooperating ranches have been published. Economic analysis of selected alternative means of providing winter forages have been published. Basin wildrye was shown to be cost effective as a planted winter forage only at high levels of productivity. Technology transfer efforts concerning the late calving concept and economic hypothesis supporting the concept have included presentations to Wyoming Stock Growers annual meetings and producer groups in Bighorn, Washakie, Uinta, and Carbon counties. In addition, referred journal articles and two articles in livestock producer weekly and monthly publications, e.g., Wyoming Cow Country and Wyoming Stockman Farmer were published.

The University of Wyoming Hereford herd, maintained at the High Plains Grassland Research Station near Cheyenne, was divided into two breeding groups, at the onset of this research. Group one was bred to calve in late February and March (early calvers), while group two was bred to calve in May and early June (late calvers). Calf birth weight, weaning weight and average daily gain measurements were utilized to evaluate productivity. Samples of grazed forage were collected from June 1996 through June 1997 and evaluated to establish nutrient availability and identify the type of supplementation needed, and when the critical periods for supplementation occur. A second phase of study evaluated the effect of calving dates on calf weaning weights on cooperating ranches and the Hereford herd.

Potential Benefits

Late season calving appears to be an effective technique to increase the sustainability of beef cattle production over a large portion of the northern plains and interior west of this country where winter feed costs constitute such a large portion of annual costs. Sustainability is achieved through increased profitability, reduced risk, and enhanced ability of producers to maintain or improve the ecological condition of rangelands in a socially acceptable manner. Late season calving moves the biological cycle and associated nutritional requirements of the cow into synchrony with the nutrient profile of growing forages or forage residues that persist into winter. This synchrony limits the need for supplemental feeds or even hay in many cases. Even in especially severe environments or adverse weather conditions, the needs for stored feeds will be reduced.

Profitability increases appear to be an expected outcome based on both the specific results found in this study and the producer interviews. Reductions in feed and labor costs seem to more than compensate for any reduction in weaning weights of calves in fall. Breakeven prices that must be received are lower. In addition most producers adopting late calving seem to have also adopted retained ownership to market yearlings or fed cattle. One producer in particular found on initiation of late calving that fall weights of the late born yearling cattle portion of their herd were nearly identical to early-born calves of the same year. Reduced feed requirements for a late-calving herd frequently frees irrigated meadow resources from the need to cut hay so that that resource can be used for grazing. This high-quality grazing resource can be used for improving gains of retained yearlings and does not have a harvesting cost.

Reduced risk includes the ability of producers to move through the low price portion of the cattle price cycle with less chance of not breaking even. Breakeven prices reported by some interviewed producers were never reached in the lows of the last two price cycles. Late calving cattle are at less environmental risk by having better ability to weather adverse winter conditions because of having lower nutrient requirements during most of the severe part of winter. Late calving cows have less calving difficulty due to nutritional status or weather, resulting in more live births and better initial calf survival. Disease is reduced in late calves since they are usually born in a dispersed setting that minimizes spread of enteritic or other diseases of young.

Late calving normally increases reliance on grazable forage resources. This would tend to increase the attention producers pay to management and ecological condition of these lands. Movement toward year round grazing will also increase the portion of total forage resources that are grazed during seasons of plant maturity or dormancy when grazing has less impact on plant health. Options for grazing of pastures at different seasons for range improvement are improved since cattle location at calving is not limited by proximity to facilities or labor.

Farmer Adoption and Direct Impact

As with many new concepts, the conservatism of Wyoming producers in the beef cattle industry slows adoption. However there appears to be a slow trend toward adoption of later calving seasons although perhaps not as many or as fast as would appear prudent. A large group of producers have moved calving seasons to April, achieving some of the benefits. Agricultural media appear to be discussing the concept more frequently. Our programs and personal contacts appear to have had a direct influence on some recent adopters. While the ten to 15 producers adopting late calving we are aware of currently may not seem numerous, the doubling of their numbers in the last four years may be noteworthy in this state with such a small population.

Reactions of Farmers and Ranchers

Most ranchers we have contacted react favorably to the animal health and calving ease aspects of late season calving. However, many express concerns about livestock movement needs in early summer with small calves, such as trailing to National Forest or Bureau of Land Management permits. Recognizing that much of the benefit of later calving comes from retained yearlings, many appear to be reluctant to make the apparently drastic change in their operation necessary to enter a cow-calf-yearling operation. Many simply appear reluctant to address options to their current marketing practices. Most of the producers adopting late calving do not have extended distances to move cattle among grazing resources.

This summary was prepared by the project coordinator for the 2000 reporting cycle.