Mark Wagner — the start of a new calving season upon him — said he’s “pushing the envelope as hard as I can.”

Wagner, a rancher and farmer at Monango in south-central North Dakota is what’s known as an early calver, which in the Upper Midwest usually means that a ranchers’ cows give birth from late January or early February through April or May. In contrast, late-calving ranchers’ cows give birth much later, often starting in late spring and continuing into June or even July.

“There can be advantages and disadvantages to both early and late calving,” said Karl Hoppe, a Carrington, N.D.-based area specialist/livestock operation who frequently talks with area ranchers about the timing of their calving and its implications.

One of the biggest reasons to calf early is “to spread out the workload” and have less impact on spring planting, he said.

Though precise numbers are tough to come by, it’s generally agreed that fewer Upper Midwest cattle operations today are calving early than in the past.

Once, many ag operations were diversified, raising both crops and livestock. Those operators were eager to begin spring field work as soon as possible, encouraging them to calf in the winter and early spring and give more time for late-spring and early-summer field work.

Through the years, however, farm operations overall have become more specialized, with the operator focusing exclusively on either crops or livestock. As a result, some operations that once calved early now have less incentive to do so, allowing their calving to be pushed later.

One measure of how ranches have become fewer, bigger and possibly more specialized: According to the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture, South Dakota had 12,838 ranches on which cows and heifers had calves, down from 13,584 in 2012. There was a sharp drop in the number of ranches on which 100 or fewer cows and heifers (young cows that hadn’t yet produced their first calf) gave birth in 2017, with an increase in the number of ranches on which more than 100 cows and heifers gave birth.

In area cow-calf operations, a cow gives birth once a year, with calves eventually sold or kept for herd expansion or as a replacement for aging cows. The timing of that birth is determined by when the cow is bred, either naturally by a bull or through artificial insemination.

Wagner, who also raises crops, said spreading out his work load is a big reason he continues to calf early.

There are other reasons for early calving, Hoppe said. They include:

  • Calves born early are older and therefore typically weigh more, fetching more money, when they’re sold.

  • Avoiding at least some spring mud. Calving early on frozen ground is hardly ideal, but it can be preferable to calving later in wet, muddy conditions that can lead to calves getting sick.

Wagner said those two factors also contribute to his early calving.

But late calving holds the powerful attraction of allowing ranchers to take advantage of what’s usually favorable late spring and early and mid-summer weather.

“We can sure get some wet, cold springs that are tough for calving, but the weather usually is better with late calving,” Hoppe said.

Another consideration that can encourage late calving: Ranchers who do so have the option of providing high-quality feed to their calves after they’re weaned, or removed from their mother’s milk, and before the animals are sold. This adds weight to the calves and can increase what ranchers are paid for them, offsetting at least some of the downside of late calving.

Sometimes, family and personal considerations enter into the timing of calving, too. For example, early calving complicates Wagner’s ability to attend his sons’ high school basketball games this winter.

“But early calving is still the best for me,” he said. “So like I said, I’m pushing the envelope as hard as I can.”