by: Stephen B. Blezinger
Ph.D., PAS

Every business has (or should have) a means of measuring and analyzing the various factors that play a role in overall performance and profitability as well as to help in decision making. Cattle operations are no different. And of the different types of beef cattle operations (cow/calf, stocker, preconditioning/backgounding, feedyards) the cow-calf operation may be the most challenging. This is true because of the large array of variables on the typical cow-calf operation that can affect performance. This can include factors related to forage production, forage quality, general nutrition, reproduction, health and so on. The purpose of this article is to act as a reasonably complete summary of the various factors that should be analyzed and tested with some regularity as part of a well-designed management plan.

Soil Analysis

While this is stating the obvious, everything grown and produced on the farm depends on the soil. If soils are not well managed they will only produce at marginal levels. The reasons the producer needs to analyze the soils on which pastures and forages in general are grown include:

• To optimize crop/forage production.
• To improve the soil's nutritional balance.
• To save money and conserve energy by applying only the amount of fertilizer needed.
• To aid in the diagnosis of plant culture/plant genetic problems.
• To protect the environment from contamination by runoff and leaching of excess fertilizers.
• To identify soils contaminated with lead or other heavy metals.

In its most basic form, a soil analysis helps us understand how to feed the soil so it can produce optimal, cost-effective forages. A soils test can be a valuable tool in assessing and preventing horticultural, agronomic, and some environmental problems. The list above does not identify plant growth problems associated with soil drainage, insects, plant diseases (whether soil-borne or not), weeds, winter injury and the use or misuse of pesticides. These issues have to be addressed separately and provide additional management data.

Forage Analysis

Forage testing allows us to balance feeding programs and proper supplementation (protein, energy, minerals and vitamins), reducing costs and improving the overall nutritional plane for the herd. This further allows for improved performance and profits. It provides a picture of what the current status of forage nutrient density is and can help the producer improve future crop management if present forage is of less-than-hoped-for quality. Finally, it can help us evaluate the value of the plant material as a nutrient source and help us determine equitable prices for feedstuffs based on nutritive value.

Forage testing is more than grabbing a handful of hay from a bale or pulling grass out of the pasture, shoving it in a plastic bag and mailing it to a lab. Each cattle operation should develop its own forage testing program to help “inventory” nutrients, both growing and stored. The nutrients provided from forages on the farm are a constantly moving target, especially if digestibility is analyzed. Pastures sampled in late March will be different in nutrient values in mid-July even if they are the same forage (i.e. coastal bermudagrass). These changes may be accentuated if rainfall is depressed or variable.

Ideally, multiple forage sources should be sampled and analyzed at multiple times of the year so the producer can develop a feel for how the forage base on the operation “behaves” nutritionally and what it will and will not respond to. Remember this is your greatest source of nutrients on most cattle producing operations.

Water Analyses

The need for water is absolute but often taken for granted. Water is important for the transport of nutrients between cells and as a vital medium for intracellular metabolism. It is needed for body temperature regulation and the digestion, absorption, and utilization of all other nutrients. As such water plays an essential role in every life process. Beef cattle need regular access to clean drinking water in order to experience optimum health. Research has demonstrated a positive relationship between access to clean drinking water and performance factors such as growth, reproduction, and milk production. Animals that drink clean, contaminant-free water are generally less prone to illness and disease, gain more weight, and produce more milk. Producers have a great deal of control over both the quantity and quality of water that is provided to animals. Monitoring water quality and observing good water management are inexpensive yet effective ways to improve overall animal performance.

For optimal performance, clean, fresh water must be provided constantly in an appropriate quantity and quality. There are significant variables that can affect water quality and should be assessed periodically. General contaminants include minerals (total dissolved solids, or TDS), manure, microorganisms, and algae. These contaminants can impact the appearance, odor, and taste of drinking water as well as its physical and chemical properties. Some contaminants may directly impact animal health by causing disease and infection; others have a more indirect effect and may cause cattle to decrease their overall water intake. When water intake is reduced, feed intake will also decrease, and, as a result, animals will gain less weight. Livestock can survive for as long as sixty days with little or no food, but only seven days without water. In very warm areas, like much of the southern United States that number may be even less.

When the mineral content of water exceeds safe levels, animal performance can suffer. High levels of sodium (salt) depress water intake and result in weight loss and diarrhea. Animals exposed to water that is high in sulfur have increased incidences of polioencephalomacia (PEM) and experience higher mortality rates. Salinity of water, the concentration of dissolved salts in water, can be expressed as either TDS or TSS (Total Soluble Salts). Electrolytes or ions that regulate or affect metabolic processes, such as magnesium (Mg+), calcium (Ca+), sodium (Na+), and chloride (Cl-), contribute to the salinity of water. At certain high levels, these electrolytes can, in fact cause toxic effects by themselves or by interfering with the absorption of other important nutrients. Alone, however, TDS, TSS, or even EC tell us little about the quality of any water sample. However, these are indicators that when elevated give us a clue that some minerals may merit further and more precise analysis.

Animal Analytics

Regular evaluation of animal performance is important to identify any potential problems in the herd, specific genetics that should be changed and opportunities to improve the program overall. Let's review some of these.

1. Reproduction

The cow is first and foremost a reproductive unit. Producing calves is her primary objective. In order to do this efficiently her nutrition, health, stress, etc. must be managed properly. Subsequently there are a variety of tools we can use pro and post-actively to evaluate this reproductive performance and should be built into the management plan.

A. Body Condition Scoring

Body condition is directly related to the cow's reproductive performance and is a very useful tool when used regularly and properly. Body condition scoring is a subjective measurement of body fat and helps estimate the likelihood of whether a cow will cycle normally and conceive. Low body condition (low body fat) will depress reproductive activity and performance. Body conditions scores below 4 are commonly seen to decrease cycling activity and conception rates. Body condition scores of 5-6 are considered optimal for most breeds. Excessive body condition (greater than BCS 8) will likewise hurt reproductive performance because it indicates an excessively fat condition. BCS can also be used with bulls. Bulls that are too thin may not produce semen/sperm of adequate volume or quality. They may also not have the energy levels necessary to cover the typical number of cows (25 to 40 head) we would normally expect. Fat bulls may experience mobility problems and can also be too heavy especially for smaller framed cows or heifers. With either bulls or cows, a body condition score of 5 to 6 is considered ideal.

B. Pregnancy Checking

Pregnancy checking the cow herd after breeding is a valuable tool for determining the number of pregnant and open cows. This is an “after the fact” analyses but helps the producer identify any open cows in the herd and provides an opportunity to potentially cull those animals for lack of performance (and reduce costs) or identify if a problem exists that needs to be addressed in the herd, management, nutrition or health programs. The first, and most common is rectal palpation. This is the most time-honored, trusted method and lets the producer know that yes, there is a calf in a given cow. A second method is by ultrasound. Ultrasonography has become practical for routine pregnancy diagnosis in cattle as machines are portable, durable and affordable have become available (and cost effective) to veterinarians, technicians and producers. Reliable pregnancy detection is generally recognized after 26 to 30 days. A third pregnancy determination method is by blood test which detects specific blood proteins. The commercial tests now available claim reliable pregnancy detection at 28 or 29 days after conception.

C. Bull Fertility Testing

Another time honored analysis is bull fertility testing. Since the bull is 50% of the calf production equation it is critical that bulls be fertile. Bulls should be tested 45 to 60 days prior to placement with cows to be bred to insure sperm and semen quality and quantity is adequate, that no abnormalities or injuries might be present or that any condition may exist that could diminish a given bull's abilities to service the cows for which he is responsible.

2. Nutritional and Health Analyses

From time to time it becomes necessary to evaluate various nutritional parameters in the animal. In many case these are used to assist in diagnosing a particular problem that has arisen but in other cases these can be used to determine the effectiveness of a given management, nutritional or health program.

A. Mineral analyses

Minerals are not always effectively absorbed by the animal. This can create problems in performance, health and reproduction. Mineral profiles of the animal analyses are most commonly performed by blood analyses although a liver biopsy is much more accurate. The problem with analyzing blood is that for many minerals it does not accurately indicate the animal's true mineral status. Many minerals are highly transient in the blood. Thus a blood analysis showing “adequate” may not reflect an almost complete depletion of a given mineral in the animal's liver which has been mobilizing that mineral for some time due to excessive stress levels. While liver biopsies are more invasive and more expensive they are, by far, more accurate.

B. Internal parasite analyses

Every operation requires a good comprehensive parasite control program. In many cases however, the infestation level or resistance to specific control compounds may overwhelm the program's ability to control a given worm or other parasite. In many cases a simple fecal sample can reveal the effectiveness or lack thereof with a given deworming or parasite control product.

3. Performance Monitoring

Monitoring overall performance requires two things, a set of scales and a good record keeping system. A quality set of scales can be purchased and installed for $2,000 to $3,000 and may very well be the most valuable tool a producer can use on the farm. Monitoring cow and calf weights can help determine the effectiveness of the nutrition program and its cost effectiveness.


You can't assess what you don't measure. Too many producers have no real idea of what they are producing and only make judgements by the weights of calves or the prices they receive at marketing time. By then it's too late. Developing a means of measurement and analyzing the many variables on the farm can go a long way to help improve performance and profitability.

Copyright May2017 – Dr. Stephen B. Blezinger. Dr. Steve Blezinger is a nutritional and management consultant with an office in Sulfur Springs, TX. He can be reached at (903) 352-3475 or by email at sblez@verizon.net. For more information please visit us at Facebook/Reveille Livestock Concepts.

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