by: Wes Ishmael

“Cattle and beef dynamics will depend on precipitation patterns during the remainder of 2014,” say analysts in the April Livestock, Dairy and Poultry Outlook. “The winter rainy season in California and the Southwest was disappointing at best, portending another drought year. The rainy season for the Plains usually begins about mid-April and continues through mid-June. With roughly half of the national cowherd in the area east of the Rocky Mountains and west of (and including) the states along the east side of the Mississippi River, there is still hope for normal precipitation in that area.”

As it is, commercial cow slaughter for the first quarter was on track to be the lowest since 2008, a reflection of fewer cattle numbers year-to-year, as well as folks with forage looking to retain more heifers.     

“If pasture conditions fail to develop normally, the rate of cow slaughter could again increase, which could delay any expansionary intentions,” ERS analysts say. “First-quarter commercial steer and heifer slaughter is on track to be the lowest since 1965. First-quarter beef production will likely be the lowest only since 2005 because dressed weights have increased over time and have largely offset general declines in inventories and slaughter since their peak in the mid-1970s.”

The desire to retain more heifers for replacements can also be seen in the inventory mix of cattle on feed.

“The number of heifers on feed for April 1 was 94 percent of year ago levels,” says Derrell Peel, Oklahoma State University Extension livestock marketing specialist in his April 28 market comments. “Fewer heifers are in feedlots as has been the case in the previous quarterly reports for January and last October and, unlike last year, there is little indication that poor forage conditions will redirect heifers into feedlots as happened in the middle of the year in 2013.”

On the one hand, ERS analysts say, “Feeder cattle prices could decline slightly in the near future as demand for pasture cattle subsides with stocking of available pasture. However, anticipation of the smallest calf crops since 1949 will provide significant price support for the limited supplies of feeder cattle later in 2014 and 2015.”

On the other hand, even with ample forage, current high prices may be too tempting for some producers when it comes to cashing in heifers and/or older cows.

“Cow-calf producers should continue to see attractive cow prices for the near term because of low cow inventories and continued demand for ground beef products from culled cows,” ERS analysts say. “Choices for producers who are not entirely certain they want to deal with another year of drought will be made more difficult by high cow prices.”

Making More of What You Have

Given the historically high opportunity cost that goes along with retaining breeding-age females, the premium for basic management has never been higher.

“If the percentage of cows calving the first 21 days of the calving season is less than 60 percent and the percentage of cows calving the second 21 days of the calving season is greater than 25 percent, a serious re-evaluation of the herd needs to occur,” says Kris Ringwall, Extension beef specialist at North Dakota State University in a recent issue of his BeefTalk newsletter. “It means that more cows are slipping back and not rebreeding on time. In other words, the cows are not maintaining a 365-day calving interval… Ideally, a cow should cycle within 80 days of calving and then settle with next year's calf. Therefore, the cow is expected to maintain an average calving interval of 365 days.”

The percentage of cows calving in any 21-day-period is simply the number that did calve divided by the number expected to calve during the period.

“Typically, that number should be more than 60 percent. This does not mean a particular cow has a 365-day calving interval, but it is a good indicator that the cows are getting bred on time,” Ringwall says. “Producers can and should calculate the percent of cows in the herd that calve within the first 21 days of the calving season and each successive 21-day period thereafter.”

Some costs of such slippage are obvious and well documented. Later calves tend to wean off at lighter weights than earlier ones. Marketing groups are sparser and less uniform. There is less time for cows to recover between calving and the next breeding season. Cows that return less than one calf per year cost more and make less.

Some costs of losing time on early-season breeders and calvers is harder to see, especially when considering the plight of first-calf heifers.

“Heifer calves born during the first 21 days of the spring calving season had greater weaning, pre-breeding, and pre-calving body weight; greater percent cycling before breeding; and greater pregnancy rates compared with heifers born in the third calving period,” says Rick Funston and fellow researchers at the University of Nebraska West Central Research and Extension Center in North Platte. In a summary of their study entitled, Effect of Calving Distribution on Beef Cattle Progeny Performance, they explain, “First-calf progeny from heifers born in the first 21 days of the calving period also had an earlier birth date and greater weaning body weight. Calving period of heifer progeny significantly impacts development and first-calf characteristics.”     

Moreover, steers calves in the study offered similar benefits to those previously associated with earlier-season calving.     

“Steer calves born earlier in the calving season have greater weaning body weight, hot carcass weight, and marbling scores,” say the Nebraska researchers. “Increasing early calving frequency may increase progeny value at weaning and enhance carcass value of the steers. Managing groups of heifer and steer progeny by calving date may allow for more efficient use of resources and optimize reproductive performance of heifer calves and feedlot performance of steer calves.”

At last years' annual meeting of the Beef Improvement Federation, Jack Whittier, Extension beef specialist at Colorado State University presented Management Practices of Developing Heifers Affects Lifetime Productivity. It focused on the befits of managing heifers to conceive early in their first breeding season.

“This practice produces cows that have greater lifetime productivity due to more growing days of their progeny before a set weaning date, which results in greater weight weaned,” Whittier explains. “It also provides for longer postpartum intervals to prepare for the subsequent breeding season, therefore increasing the probability of conception early in the breeding season to facilitate early calving the next calving season. Combined, these factors result in greater lifetime productivity of heifers that calve early relative to herd mates.”

Whittier also presented some fundamental management principles.

• Heifers that conceive early as yearlings during their first breeding season appear to be “programmed” for productive lives.

• Early-born calves perform better than later-born calves.

•Release of dominance expressed as heterosis in reproductive traits is real.

•Heifers born early in relation to herd mates increases the likelihood that they will conceive early in their first breeding season.

• Early-born heifers tend to have early calves themselves.

•Steer progeny from early calving cows produce higher value carcasses than late calving cows.

•Yearling heifers that respond to estrus synchronization and conceive early to AI produce greater lifetime revenue than heifers that conceive to natural service.

“A producer should be questioning why all the cows don't calve during the first 21 days of the calving season,” Ringwall says. “About 40 percent of the herd calves during the second 21 days or later. Why? Once a cow misses an opportunity to breed, the chances of getting back into the first 21 days are low. Those cows would need to be cycling 60 days post-calving or sooner following calving to move up into the first 21 days. That does not happen routinely because cows seem to need 60 to 80 days post-calving to rebreed.”

“If she starts her productive life conceiving during the first 21 days of the breeding season, with no calving difficulty and proper nutrition, she should continue to maintain a 365-day calving interval (give or take a couple of days) if there is a fertile bull available,” Ringwall says.

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