REPRODUCTIVE PERFORMANCE DRIVES PROFITS

by: Clifford Mitchell


In periods where the dollar per pound price is hovering as high as it is today, it is easy for some to forget all the hard work it took to raise that calf and get caught up in what calves are bringing. The seedstock industry sometimes gets greedy and steps away from the production practices needed to send out good, sound breeding bulls to commercial cattlemen when top dollar is received. Every rancher has probably fell victim to a good market that leads them into a false sense of security or an overwhelming sense of accomplishment.

After all, come shipping day those dollars are real and an easy thing for ranchers to take to the bank. Hidden costs or value that is difficult to measure often poses a problem for the most skilled cattlemen. These equations or formulas to derive some of these figures come a little more complicated. Traits that are difficult to measure usually bear the greatest impact on overall profitability.

“Reproductive performance is the most important profit driver in the beef business,” says Dr. Jason Cleere, Extension Beef Cattle Specialist, Texas AgriLife Extension.

“There are a lot of factors that impact reproductive performance, but cow size, nutrition and adaptability are the three main contributors to getting cows bred back in a timely manner,” says Dr. Matt Hersom, Extension Beef Cattle Specialist, University of Florida.

“Adaptability and efficiency of the “momma cow” has more to do with profitability than any other trait including carcass quality and weaning weight. Fertility and longevity of those cows will go a long way to improve reproductive performance,” says Trey Scherer, Collier Farms, Brenham, Texas.

“We have to get as many cows bred and as many calves weaned as possible to make a profit. Females that we raised and are adapted to our management system are easier to breed back because they have a routine. If they don't perform we make no excuses,” says Steve Densmore, Circle X Land and Cattle Co. Ltd., Bryan, Texas.

Drastic changes in input costs or cow carrying costs have pushed the envelope for reproductively sound females. Meeting nutritional requirements has an impact on performance and it is a difficult choice when some inputs reach current price levels.

“Input costs such as fertilizer and feed have gone up considerably in the last five years. The cost of hay has increased $10 to $12.50, even $25 a roll and it makes it hard to manage cattle. Every cow has a limit to how much you can restrict nutrient intake. If you calve cows in poor condition, conception rates will be off,” Cleere says. “Some operations may be able to make more money with fewer cows if you can maintain higher breed back and a few more pounds per cow exposed. Lighter stocking rates mean lower input costs.”

“Feed and fertilizer are expensive, but if you don't give cattle enough nutrition you're going to feel it in your bottom line,” Hersom says. “Cattle that are stressed nutritionally could affect reproductive performance. Cows are only going to perform if we put something into them.”

The industry has not seen drastic increases in input costs over the years. Current trends are a cause for concern for most cattlemen. Selecting the right kind could make best use of inputs.

“As ranchers, we can't control input costs. We can control females. Keep the efficient cattle in the herd that can function with fewer inputs. Raising the 800 pound calf is not feasible any more,” Scherer says. “Five to six hundred pound calves, at six or seven months of age could be the optimum in today's market.”

“All input costs have skyrocketed. If your cow herd requires a lot of extras to keep them breeding back and performing, they might not be the right kind,” Densmore says. “The most profitable cows are those that can hold their condition and breed back in time for the next calf. For cows to perform they need to be healthy and a good health program can never be sacrificed.”

Cattle that fall short of expectations are sometimes not equipped with the right tools to meet the challenges presented by the environment they are in. Selecting traits that meet genetic goals does not always cover all the bases. The forgotten element of crossbreeding in commercial cow herds should provide some immediate benefits and combat higher input costs.

“Crossbred cows are the most powerful tool the commercial cow man has access to. They are easier to maintain and have the genetic capabilities to optimize performance in different environmental conditions,” Hersom says. “We can usually create more fertile cows and bigger calves. Unfortunately, a lot of cattlemen will straight breed commercial cows until they realize they need the crossbreeding element. A defined crossbreeding system can help with cow size, nutrition and adaptability.”

“A lot of commercial herds are closer to be straight bred cows today than they have been in the past. We have forgotten the crossbred factor and what we use those cows for,” Cleere says. “Make sure the parent breed types fit your environment. There is an opportunity to take advantage of the benefits of hybrid vigor.”

“Producers can gain strides with a crossbreeding plan. Adding the bos indicus influence will add longevity and fertility to most cow herds,” Scherer says. “Crossbred cows that are at least 25 percent Brahman fit a lot of different environments.”

“The heterosis provided through crossbreeding is a great boost to a lot of things. Crossbred cows can thrive in a little tougher conditions and do their job,” Densmore says. “With current input costs, sometimes it's not practical to get those higher weaning weights without crossbreeding.”

Simple changes to management strategy could help define the parameters for the cows that work. Defined calving seasons and strict culling criteria are tools some operations fail to use in the quest for profitability.

“Over the last several years we have gone from a 150 day calving season to a 100 day calving season. Our goal is to get to a 90 day calving season. Our calf crop has become a lot more uniform,” Densmore says. “We're selecting better females to put back into the herd. The cows that breed first; calve first and usually do it year after year. When two thirds of the cow herd calves in 60 days it's really easy to take a hard look at that bottom one –third from a reproductive standpoint and start weeding those cows out. We can't afford to stretch that calving season back out.”

“We have a 90 day calving season. The first group of 50 cows that reaches 45 to 50 days post partum we'll synchronize and time breed. About 10 to 15 days later we'll walk a bull out with them,” Scherer says. “This gives them roughly two cycles with the bull. We are forcing those cows to start cycling and last year we settled over 60 percent first service AI. We have backed up our calving season about 30 days and increased breed up. We're spending a few extra dollars, but were priming that system.”

“Producers usually can get more out of the cow herd from an efficiency standpoint by creating a reproductively sound environment through a defined calving season,” Hersom says. “Commercial operators who have created the right cows and provided enough inputs to perform should be able to define their calving season and cull poor performers. There can be no exceptions at this point. Cows that don't breed back or wean a calf or wean poor calves need to be culled. Under this scrutiny there will be cows that flourish and cows that signal I can't cut it.”

“One of the benefits of raising your own replacements, you have better selection control. The most fertile females come from the most fertile cows and are born early in the calving season,” Cleere says. “You can often select from your top cow families when you raise your own and select from female lines that have never missed.”

Doing something different may help match females better to current input strategies. Different production scenarios can be profitable for some operations. High cull market prices have made it a little easier to swallow replacing a cow that does not perform, but ultimately replacement costs will have an impact on the management strategy.

“For some operations, adding age to those virgin heifers might be an advantage. These operations will not have to push these cattle from an age and weight standpoint so they should be cheaper and easier to maintain,” Scherer says. “This may be cost effective, especially, if retention rate increases and offsets additional costs of breeding them a little later. It costs to replace a cow no matter what age she is. Replacement cost is always getting lost in the shuffle.”

“The hardest thing on a heifer is to calve her at 24 months, but I still do it. For some operations, calving that heifer at 27 to 30 months of age might be better for the heifer and from a cost standpoint,” Densmore says. “They start off a little bigger aren't cutting teeth and she should breed back better. I think this could help some operations with input costs and retention rate. There is a cost to replacing cows.”

Mature size seems to be another indicator of reproductive efficiency in an environment that is adding pressure to management as it deals with higher cost of production. Matching females to fit nutrient availability is another strong statement being made by commercial cattlemen today.

“Commercial cattlemen have to define the type of female that works in his operation. Sometimes we create females that with age have to be removed from the program because they outgrow their resources,” Cleere says. “We can maintain moderate mature size by taking advantage of the available genetics. Depending on your production goals different sires will determine end point. If you want to produce replacements stay in the middle of the road. If more pounds are your preference you may consider a terminal sire.”

“Some producers are in denial when it comes to evaluating the cow herd and their mature weights. One thousand pound cows and 1,000 pound hay bales are few and far between,” Hersom says. “We have to create moderate size females that fit our production scheme. If we need something use sire power to get more pounds at weaning or to create replacements.”

“Decide what a good mature weight is for your cow herd. We used to weigh every cow at weaning, but have gotten away from that,” Densmore says. “Get cows that are that weight that can breed back and are easy-keeping. You have to analyze the herd and try to eliminate cows that don't work.”

Managing the cow herd does require a certain element of patience and knowledge the critters have to depend on the management team to provide necessary ingredients for success. Genetics, nutrition, environment and weather patterns could be the real owner, manager, top hand and manager's wife when it comes to the cow business.

These factors all have a great deal to do with day to operation at any firm that raises beef. Taking advantage of these resources and setting long term goals will help produce the kind of females needed to provide profit.

“As an operation if you don't have long range plans and try to accomplish some goals along the way, you're just out there flopping in the wind with no direction to go. If you have a defined calving season be pretty tough on that bottom third. If a cow doesn't bring home a calf get rid of her,” Densmore says. “No system is going to be perfect and you're going to have to keep track of a lot more information. Set those goals and at the end of every breeding season try to improve.”

“Producers have to put a pencil to everything. If you're not weaning an 85 percent calf crop, odds are you're losing money,” Scherer says. “You have to have a long term plan on how to improve reproductive performance. Producers can't run a program on a year to year basis.”

“People have to track and record information. Otherwise you don't know if it was worthwhile to make improvements,” Hersom says. “The business model says we have to make a return on resource investment. The decision making tools available to cattlemen usually don't cost them anything, but it's a great tool in their arsenal. Improving reproductive efficiency still comes down to cow size, nutrition and adaptability.”

“Producers have to work out a system that can be successful with a little give and take. Sometimes items like small improvements in conception rate are overlooked. Getting two more calves at $600 to $700 per head could make a big difference in a 100 head herd,” Cleere says. “Producers need to look at dollars returned per cow to the ranch or other big picture items like total value, meaning what it cost me to get those extra pounds or better breed back.”







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