The 21st century beef industry has brought new ideas and concepts to the table. Many go above and beyond traditional management values. Cattlemen continue to refine their “craft” looking to produce the best end product possible to keep beef the center piece of many dinner tables.
Many goals to improve genetics revolve solely around carcass traits to try and capitalize on value-based marketing. In recent times, it seems the race to improve carcass traits has left behind beef business staples like crossbreeding and reproductive efficiency.
Tight calving seasons, measuring fertility and knowing pregnancy status, is a good way to protect the investment in the cow herd. Replacement females, whether bought or raised, are a valuable commodity, but sometimes it is more profitable to remove the less fertile females.
The research community is always on hand to help identify tools that can make the producer's job easier. Preg checking cows has sometimes presented its own unique set of challenges for cattlemen. Some veterinarians are good at identifying pregnancy status through palpation, others are not. As rural vets disappear, other alternatives will need to be found. Ultrasound is very accurate, but it may be cost prohibitive to some producers. Taking a blood sample and sending it in to be evaluated seems to be practical for most operations.
“We developed this system because it identified pregnancy at a very early stage, was more accurate than palpation and equally accurate to ultrasound. There are many good vets that do a good job preg checking cows, but the BioPRYN test is more consistent,” says Dr. Garth Sasser, founder of Biotracking LLC. Sasser developed the test that identifies the presence of a protein called pregnancy specific protein B.
Blood samples can be taken at thirty days after service or after bulls have been taken out of the cows. However, a cow must be 90 days post partum to remove all the residual protein of the previous pregnancy from her system for an accurate reading. For example, if a cow is bred 60 days post partum then she could be tested at 90 days post partum.
By the time a female has her first calf at the age of two, the producer has invested a significant amount of money and time in developing the future of the program. It is a very costly venture to remove females that were called open, but were actually pregnant. At the same time, carrying that open cow through the winter only to find out she is barren, is not very efficient management of resources.
“We designed the test to be very accurate. When the test calls a cow open it is correct over 99 percent of the time and when it calls a cow pregnant it is approximately 93 percent correct,” Sasser says. “Our report identifies pregnant, not pregnant or candidates to be retested. If a cow needs to be retested, most of the time this is because the sample was taken too early or she lost an embryo. We set our cutoffs so we don't put a pregnant cow in the open category. We don't want cattlemen to cull pregnant cows or treat with recycling drugs and abort the fetus. That is very costly.”
“I operate with two calving seasons and we are trying to grow our numbers. I can save my investment by moving cows to a different calving season one time. I was amazed at how many of those females that were called open were actually pregnant. I really like the accuracy of the test. I used on it 175 head the first time and when I retested those cows only one, the test called pregnant, was open,” says Brandon Critendon, Wolfe Point Ranch, Port Vavaca, Texas. Wolfe Point is a large commercial outfit that retains ownership of steer calves through the feedyard.
“Thirty days after my clients take out their bulls I can test the cows and remove the open females from the herd so they aren't carried through the winter. Some good young cows could be moved to a fall calving program because most of my producers take out the bulls in August and we know the opens in September. We have time to get them ready to breed in December. If it costs $350 to take care of cow for the year, if you get rid of 10 opens in the fall that's a savings of $3,500,” says Bill Wallace. Wallace operates a consulting firm in Conway, Arkansas. Part of his service was palpation, but he says the test is more accurate.
Due to economies of scale, the practicality of some management options only fit larger operations. Drawing blood seems to be very versatile and will not eliminate the small producer. For specialized production practices like embryo transfer where producers are dealing with a very delicate item that has a lot of cost, drawing blood may be the best option.
“With embryo work, knowing if you have a pregnancy is very important. At an early stage of pregnancy you'll lose two percent of your pregnancies with palpation. I have invested in top genetics, I can't lose a calf that could potentially be worth a lot of money trying to find out if the recipient cow is pregnant,” says Greg Holman, Lee Mountain Cattle Co., Dover, Arkansas. Holman is building his herd through embryo transplant. He uses the BioPRYN test in his own herd and his cooperator herds.
The name of the game in the cattle business is to tighten the calving season and get as many cows bred as quickly as possible. Identifying pregnancy at an early stage will help cattlemen form specific management groups to better meet nutritional needs.
“I can manage my herd better when I know which females are bred and which ones are open,” Holman says. “The decision I have to make is whether I want to put another embryo in the open cow or turn her out with the cleanup bull.”
“Knowing pregnancy status early allows me to tighten up my calving season,” Critendon says. “Since we retain ownership on our calves, we can send a more uniform group to the feedyard. The only real downside I can see to the blood test is it is not a chute side decision. I have to wait for the results to be processed, but I get my results in a fairly timely manner.”
“I like being able to test 30 days after we pull bulls. This is too early to palpate cows and if you palpate pregnancy status is very difficult to predict,” Wallace says. “You are also going to cause some embryonic death palpating that early. I'd like to see a way we could predict when the cows are going to calve, but that is the only drawback.”
Eliminating stress on the cow herd is another way to improve performance. Taking a blood test has proven to be less demanding on the staff and an easier day for the cows.
“There is not much stress on the cow herd. It is over and done with in less than a minute and it is easier on the guys doing it,” Wallace says. “I have tested over 2,000 cows and it takes less time to take a blood sample than it does to palpate a cow. She's back in the pasture rather than sitting in the corral.”
“Normally when I draw blood I need to do something else to my cows like deworm and I can coordinate management that I do and take care of it all at once,” Holman says. “This is less stressful on my cows because they are run through the chute once, not two or three times.”
“We operate a rotational grazing system so our cows handle pretty easy any way, but the lack of stress on the cows really stands out to me and it's an easier day's work,” Critendon says. “We don't have to swap out palpators which helps accuracy, because depending on experience the results may be different. The protein we're looking for is fairly stable and is not heat sensitive. We protect the samples, but handling the blood is a simple process.”
A limiting factor with some herds may be an identification system. BioPRYN can only be effective if every animal is identified.
“You have to have your cows identified. We write the cows number right on the vial of blood so we can match the results,” Critendon says. “We have a visual ID, plus an electronic ID in every cow. This will let me identify a cow if she loses her visual ID. The night before, I can prompt my tag reader to identify the open cows and gate cut those cows after she comes down the chute.”
The BioPRYN test seems to fit some management groups better than others and offers potential to help form specific marketing groups or eliminate bad genetics. Replacement females continue to bring top dollar and adding value to the ones that do not breed up is top priority. The blood test may fit this management group better than the lactating cow.
“This could play a role in future marketing opportunities. Once we get our numbers right, we will be marketing groups of replacement females. We can know their pregnancy status early and group them accordingly,” Critendon says. “When I identify which ones are pregnant and which ones are open, I can re-evaluate the females. Some of the opens may need more nutrition. I may make another sort and cull some of the females.”
“There is a small window of opportunity to add value to those open heifers by sending them to the feedlot,” Wallace says. “The blood test allows you to identify opens and maybe make a few extra dollars.”
“A heifer program is a very good fit for the test. Our dairy customers are real happy,” Sasser says. “This could be a cheap alternative for feedyards to guarantee heifers that are put on feed are open.”
When cattlemen make the decision to change management protocol, cost is often the first thing evaluated. The cost effectiveness of the BioPRYN test may be one of its best attributes.
“Some vets are pretty accurate some miss. He costs you a lot of money when he's wrong,” Wallace says. “When we started using the test, it wasn't very expensive. The price has gone up, but it is still not very expensive, compared to vet costs and a lot more accurate.”
“The blood test is a win-win situation for me,” Holman says. “It's safer, more accurate and I didn't increase my costs.”
“This is a lot cheaper alternative for me than ultrasound,” Critendon says. “The $2.25/per head I spend is very cost-effective with the numbers we have.”
Bottom line, improved management makes for a more efficient outfit. Employing new technology can sometimes help fine tune a system that was already running smoothly. Early results seem favorable for this manner of pregnancy testing females.
Reproductive efficiency, hands down, is the most noteworthy contributor to the net worth statement. The production chain starts with the pregnant cow and has to be properly managed for genetic improvement to reach full potential. Eliminating less fertile females from the cow herd is the only way to put selection pressure to identify females that can work in your management system.
“It's all about being a good steward. I take into account cost, accuracy, ease of handling and taking care of something delicate when I made the decision to use the blood test,” Holman says. “I have to be a good steward. Even if I were a commercial cattleman, I would draw blood rather than palpate cows. It's more accurate and there's less chance of losing the pregnancy.”
“I am still in the middle of my learning curve. Checking to see how my cows bred up the first time and then re-checking them with the same results was an eye opener. So far I am a believer and will continue to use the blood test unless the cows don't calve like they are supposed to,” Critendon says. “Being able to identify pregnancy this early let's me look at a lot of different scenarios.”