RUMINATE ON THIS… Post #2: Listen to your Mother (Nature) by Meagan Lannan

There are some things we need to start talking about...
— Roger Indreland of Indreland Ranch, Big Timber, MT

Yeah, we made it, but…

A few months ago, as I sat by the warm fire watching the snow blow, I thought about when we used to calve during this most challenging time of year. We followed the 2-hour cow check protocol that commenced with the battle of buttons and zippers, of bibs, jacket, boots, scarf, hat and gloves. Once bundled, like the little brother from A Christmas Story, we waddled out to the truck. Bumping out to the pasture, our thoughts were met with the high probability of pulling a calf. Upon making our rounds, we headed back to the house to catch some substandard sleep in the ole recliner.


Believe me, we’re not afraid of cold weather, hard work or lack of sleep. And, when we made the decision to calve several weeks later (as discussed in the Blog below), we respectfully considered our traditional practices. We looked at every aspect of winter calving and its impact on our quality of life, our herd’s productivity, and our operation’s bottom line.


Listen to your Mother (Nature)

Mother Nature planned the reproductive cycle of wild ruminants for success. Consider when the deer, elk and antelope give birth. Though some are choosing an easier way, most ranchers across the northern tier of the US and Canada calve in late winter/early spring. Is it worth fighting those odds?

Ranching for Profit’s Dave Pratt, in his calving-related blog (, wrote,[nature] uses a concentrated breeding season, and a strict culling policy. It may be the prototype of a profitable ranch today… What would happen if instead of fighting nature, we worked with nature?”

Research has found that winter calving is linked to the highest infrastructure costs and the greatest total labor requirements. Gene Schriefer, University of Wisconsin Ag Agent, provides commentary and data involving direct costs, overhead costs and animal performance that you may want to review.  Schreifer includes data from a similar study completed by Dr. Kris Ringwall of North Dakota State University.

Highlights of the two research efforts include:

1.     Late winter is the worst time to put the mother cow through her greatest stress and nutritional requirements, lowering conception rates

2.     Feed consumption is of course much higher during the winter months, and the cost of this stored feed is high whether you purchase it or put it up yourself

3.     Death loss is lower for later calvers, which means more calves weaned per cow

4.     Breeding later during hotter summer months DOES NOT reduce conception rates

5.     Younger calves (mid-March vs. May) are somewhat lighter on the same weaning date, but there was no difference in daily gain.

Out in the field…

WSE was able to catch up with Alex Blake, a WSE Certified Producer from Big Timber, MT. Alex commented that he started to calve around mid-May about ten years ago. The most obvious benefits he sees are less stress on people, animals, land, and infrastructure. “Except for purchased bred heifers that may come with a March or early April calving date, we range calve everything. We very rarely have to doctor a calf (2-3 a season).” Alex noted that scours, which used to be an issue, has almost completely gone away because they are making frequent moves and constantly have livestock on fresh pasture. The Blakes typically don't handle (tag, weigh or castrate) a calf until branding, as they only tag the calves from first calf heifers. 

When asked about mitigating inputs in relation to his calving operation, Alex said, “Feed costs have dropped significantly, although I can’t say by exactly how much since we didn’t keep records prior to this transition. When we made the transition, we also sold our haying equipment, a tractor, and now have a neighbor put up a little hay for us or we buy hay locally. Our goal is to feed no more than about ten days a winter - although the last two winters have tested that plan a bit!”

“Conception rates fell a little the first few years after we transitioned and started asking a lot more of our cows through the winter,” Alex said. Their conception rate is in the mid-ninety percent range. But, he admitted that, “it does take some time to get used to seeing ‘thin’ cows in January, February, and March (BCS 4s and 5s), but we know they'll put good condition back on in time for calving, peak lactation and breeding.”

The Blakes need some calves to be big enough to go on a truck and/or trail to pastures a few miles away by early July, so have not pushed their calving start date any later. The calves that are born mid-June or later are moved to more distant pastures by late-July. They run their cows on approximately 5,500 acres, and have the flexibility to bring in yearlings on good moisture years. 

Alex notes that calving when they do, gives them the marketing flexibility of either selling calves in December, if the winter feed situation looks tight, or holding them until the spring (March or April) to capture the green-up market. Their calves are lighter, which is also partly due to downsizing their mature cow size, so they don't get concerned about weaning smaller calves. Most years, the Blakes feel like they’re getting about the same dollar amount per calf if they can hold on to them until January or February and not put a lot of supplemental feed into them. The Blake operation stockpiles feed on their irrigated meadows so they can typically run those calves pretty cheaply.

For the Blakes, the combination of less labor, stress, supplemental feed, and equipment expenses coupled with marketing flexibility makes calving in late Spring a more profitable scenario.


“What would happen if instead of fighting nature,

we worked with nature?”

Tyrel Obrecht, a WSE certified producer, also shared some of the positive impacts on his operation resulting from a transition to later calving. Tyrel is the 5th generation on his family’s ranch near Turner, Montana where he ranches with his dad and grandfather. Their operation is making adjustments to work with Mother Nature, decrease labor and improve wildlife habitat. 

Positive Impacts the Obrecht’s have experienced:

·    Savings on the hay pile!  January 2019 was the complete opposite of 2018, our cows were able to graze and have access to lick tubs. Backing up the calving date lowered the nutritional demand the cattle needed in January, allowing us to graze them longer.

·    Healthier calves!  The calves are born on green grass and in nicer weather, and [they] start gaining instantly. The cows are slicked off, shiny and black and milking good. 

·    Less labor!  The calving percentages haven’t really changed much, but the stress on the cow, calf and personnel is minimal. Compared to night checking and calving in March, over 300 man-hours were saved. 

·    Didn’t night check!  We calved our heifers on the range, and didn’t night check them. First time in over 30 years we’ve done this. We did lose a couple during a spring flurry that we probably could have saved through the barn, but the heifers had to fend for themselves, which we feel is going to make them better mothers, and last longer on our operation.

For the Obrechts, calving later is a no-brainer. The cows, calves and land are all healthier because of it. The labor input is much less, resulting in less stress, more profitability and happier people.

We have rounded up other resources below for you to check out.

As always, we would love to hear your thoughts.

Give us a call or shoot us an email anytime!

Meagan Lannan ranches with her husband and two children on the family’s fourth-generation ranch in the Paradise Valley, Montana.

Videos & Links:

The Benefits of Calving on Pasture During the Growing Season.

Why did we move to June Calving? 

Benefits of Summer Calving

May Calving…

Tired of cold calving?

Gene Schriefer, UW Ag Agent in Iowa County 

Dave Pratt, Ranching for Profit 

Janette BarnesComment