by: Chel Terrell
The Beefmaster Cowman

Tight margins, lean pastures and rising input costs mean that every cow on the ranch needs to be earning her keep. If a cow is not going to produce a calf every year, she's simply a freeloader – costing the operation a valuable paycheck and utilizing resources more productive animals can benefit from.

Pregnancy checking, whether it's through rectal palpation, ultrasound or blood testing, is a valuable management tool for producers to implement to determine if they have any non-productive cows in the herd. Open cows can be culled and marketed before an excessive amount of money is devoted to winter feeding, or producers could separate these females and put them on a “suspect list” and manage them differently for future production decisions.

“Preg checking is a good management strategy for a number of reasons,” said Dr. Jason Banta, Texas AgriLife Extension Livestock Specialist. “With the input costs we're looking at this year, you don't want to keep those open cows in the herd and feed them the same way you would pregnant cows because the cost of maintaining a cow for a year is extremely high. Right now you're looking at, on average, $575-$625 to maintain a cow for a full year. If you don't have a calf to sell out of them, that's a money-losing proposition.”

“Non-productive cows need to be sorted off. Preg checking puts that open cow on my suspect list,” said Dr. Todd Thrift, University of Florida Extension Beef Cattle Specialist. “Whether or not you cull the open cows is an economic decision. You may make the decision not to sell those cows right now for various reasons – it may cost too much to buy a heifer to replace her or to raise a replacement. When it comes time to cull and cull cow prices get really high or if we get into a drought, the first ones to go are those on my suspect list that have skipped a calf.” Not all females that preg check open are infertile though, Thrift noted.

“You have to ask yourself why is she open?” he said. “Is she a first-calf heifer and maybe you let her slip? Is she an old cow? Check her soundness so that you can make an informed decision on whether or not she needs to be culled now or just go on the suspect list.”

Pregnancy checking is most effective when producers have a defined breeding season. Otherwise, it makes palpation much more difficult, Banta said. And removing bulls from the herd will help producers better target a time to plan preg checks.

“If you have a defined breeding season, then you're typically going to palpate the cows about 90 to 120 days after the bulls are pulled just because you'll have all those calves at a big enough stage where they'll be easy enough to feel in a cow,” he said. “The problem with not having the bull pulled is there could be some short-bred cows that are just too short to determine for sure whether they're open or bred.”

“If you are running a long calving season, one of the things you should probably ask your veterinarian or the person that's doing your palpation is to sort those long breds from the short breds,” Thrift said. “You don't have to be exact, but those that are 60 to 120 days are very different from those that are five to six months along. You can sort them into early bred and late bred if the person checking them has the skill to do so.”

Both Banta and Thrift agree that the benefits of preg checking cows far outweigh the potential costs involved with the practice.

“The cost of pregnancy detection is minimal. It costs you more to put that cow in a chute than it does to pay a veterinarian to check her,” Thrift said. “If you preg check 200 cows for $600, you may spend way more than $600 on feed wasted on those cows that don't need it.

“To me, preg checking is a no-brainer,” Banta said. “Even if you're having to pay $5 per cow to preg check, when you look at what it's probably going to take to winter cows, all you need to do is save the money from not feeding one of those open cows to pay for and justify palpating the rest of your herd and then you're still making money.

“Pregnancy checking is a very good return on investment when you look at that cost.”

All three methods are in about the same ballpark cost-wise, Banta said. He estimates that rectal palpation will run producers $3-$5 per animal and ultrasound pregnancy detection will range from $3-$7, a slightly higher cost due to the equipment being used. For blood testing, most labs charge about $2.50 per sample. Producers will also need a plastic blood tube and syringe to collect the sample if they choose this method.

Banta prefers a 3 cc syringe with a needle already attached to it for the blood test.

“The combo (plastic tube and syringe) will cost less than $0.50 depending on the quantity purchased. So total, around $3 for the test and equipment,” he said. “Even if you figured it was going to cost you $10 (which none of the methods are really running in that price range), when you're looking that it may cost us $200-$300 just to winter a cow this winter, that's an extremely cheap investment.”

Each preg check method has its benefits and drawbacks. “Ultrasound is an extremely effective tool to use. It's going to be much better for diagnosing those early pregnancies and to start managing those cows or go ahead and getting them culled quicker,” Banta said. “The difficulty we see with ultrasound is there are just fewer people available that have the skill to do it, so it's harder to get somebody to your operation to ultrasound. But if you can find somebody, that's an excellent tool.”

Another potential advantage for using ultrasound is diagnosing the fetus's sex, Banta said. “If you ultrasound them at the right point in time, they can diagnose the sex of the fetus with a pretty high accuracy. If you're needing to reduce herd numbers but want the ability to rebuild and have the ultrasound done at the right time, you can see which cows are pregnant with heifer calves versus bull calves and maybe focus more on keeping those cows that are having heifer calves.”

Producers that utilize the blood test option can draw samples at their operation then send them to a lab for analysis. The lab will send the results back to the producer within a few days, letting them know whether that cow is pregnant or not.

“The advantages of that are you can do the blood testing on your schedule and don't have to work around somebody else's schedule that's going to come in and palpate,” he said.

The big bonus for using rectal palpation and ultrasound is you get your answers chute side, unlike with the blood test method. “The blood test is not chute side – no instant results are available right when cattle are being worked,” Banta said. “You'd have to bring those cows back in and re-sort them after you got the blood test results.

“Some producers have been using blood tests much earlier than we would typically rectally palpate those cows because of the dry weather and having to reduce herd numbers. The blood test can pick up pregnancies at 28 days and help producers identify those open cows sooner.”

People that are AIing and following up with a cleanup bull might be unsure if the cows are AI or natural service bred. The blood test can help pinpoint the answer.

“If they paid a little attention when they pulled the blood test, they can actually use that to sort out what breeding date those animals were bred to,” Banta said. “If they weren't bred at that point in time, the producer would know they weren't bred to that AI date. Then if they come up bred, you know they were bred by natural service.”

This option requires a little more labor because of the shorter window when producers need to conduct that first blood test, but “for people who have cows up and they're checking them and want to know, this is one method,” Banta said. “Some producers will wait 10 days after AIing to turn the bulls out, some will wait longer. Personally, I would want to do that blood test 28 to 35 days after the AI date. If you wait much more than about 35 days, then you start wondering about that natural service in there.”

Thrift emphasizes that producers need to have their animal identified to truly make preg checking benefit the operation.

“You need to have ID on your cows to help you with the preg check process,” he said. “If you don't have any ID at all, that makes some of this stuff difficult. One of my mentors used to tell me that pregnancy testing is not real valuable unless you get rid of those cows that are sub-fertile. That's very true, but it's an economic decision of when I get rid of them.

“They may not go right away. If I have excess forage, I may roll them into a different herd. I may do a lot of different things with them. But, they're marked. I use that as a determination – putting some selection pressure on fertility. You won't make quick strides that way, but slowly over time you will develop a more fertile herd of cattle.

(Reprinted with permission from the March 2015 Beefmaster Cowman.)

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