PIERRE, S.D. — Cattle producers weigh a multitude of factors when determining when to start calving in South Dakota. But one factor they can't fully anticipate is the state's volatile weather. While some producers are pushing their calving seasons later into the spring, others have already welcomed their first calves of 2020.

The ability to start calving as early as January relies heavily on whether an operation is equipped with the right facilities and labor force. That’s the case for Bieber Red Angus, of Leola.

Craig Bieber, co-owner of the ranch, said the cattle market is a major factor when determining when to start calving. As of Monday, Jan. 6, Bieber said 10 to 15 cows have already given birth to calves on the ranch.

The ranch sells bulls in March, so it’s best to have yearling bulls when the time comes for them to go to market.

“So years ago, we started calving in February and probably in the last 10 years we moved it up to January,” Bieber said. He said the ranch has another round of calving in May to early June planned.

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But calving early has its challenges. The Biebers had to improve their facilities to calve in the winter.

“My dad had a smaller calving barn and at the end of his career he added onto it,” Bieber said.

Bieber said he also has a hoop beef feeding system, and all the cows that are close to calving will go into a confinement feeding situation so they can be watched carefully.

“We’ll try to keep them in there 28 to 48 hours,” Bieber said, noting that he does keep the barns heated.

“We do have a heated room and heated box or two to warm calves up. I would say it does incur some extra cost but it does return some value,” Bieber said.

Bieber said that there are years where calving early is more difficult than others.

“Last year was one of the harder years that I can remember. The calving wasn’t difficult but keeping calves healthy was work,” Bieber said.

Warren Rusche, a feedlot management associate with the South Dakota State University Extension Office in Brookings, said determining when to calve isn’t a decision made on the fly.

“If you’re going to be calving into February and March, there's more of a need for better facilities," he said. "Labor supply plays a role into that. The other reason that people make a decision to calve earlier is marketing and market patterns. Seasonally, there’s a big difference between cattle that are ready to market in March or April than in September."

Rusche said being ready to market earlier when the market conditions are better can be a beneficial strategy. But overall, Rusche said determining when to start calving is highly dependent on the individual operation.

In the past couple years, South Dakota’s winters have been punishing to livestock producers and have had an impact on the timeline in which they determine when to begin calving. Rusche said he’s seen some producers start calving later in May or June.

“The advantages are more favorable weather, less chance of snow, but it’s not a 100 percent risk-free thing either. A cold wet rain will kill calves in May, too. Getting cows bred can sometimes offer some challenges,” Rusche said.

For some, producers roll the dice with calving in South Dakota’s volatile weather conditions when there’s a chance for a spring blizzard.

“Some of those folks are faced with a tough decision. Do you continue to take that risk or do you put up the money to put up more buildings?” Rusche said.

Travis Johnson raises Red Angus cattle just west of Sisseton. Throughout the years, Johnson said he pushed his calving season into late spring.

“We’ve been going later and later, I used to calve in February and March. This next year I’m not supposed to start calving until the first part of May,” Johnson said.

After having some cows calve early during an April snowstorm, Johnson resolved to push his calving dates later into the spring season. Having the time and labor to calve in early spring has also been a factor in Johnson’s planning.

“One reason I did it is lack of labor," he said. "So everything gets so busy in the spring when we’re trying to do a little farming, get fences fixed, running a feedlot and it gets overwhelming to do a really good job and to do well at those jobs.”

Johnson said calving is labor intensive and it takes its toll after only a couple weeks.

“I start petering out after a couple weeks of hard calving and then I’m about shot. I just can’t do it with the labor that we’ve got. So that’s why I moved it back. You’ve still got to fight a week or so of some storms, then usually the weather gets warm enough to where the calves can lay there a little while before you can get to them,” Johnson said.

When it comes time to breed his cows, Johnson said it can be tricky when neighbors want to tend their bull out earlier.

“I’ve got some good neighbors that we’ve tried to rotate accordingly. You can’t do that with everybody,” Johnson said. “They’ll let me know when you’re getting into this pasture and I’ll just get my cows out of my way."