Sexten: Cow Culling Technologies – Drovers Magazine

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Sexten: Cow Culling Technologies – Drovers Magazine

Last month focused on genetic testing technologies and their opportunities for evaluating bull performance, this month let’s shift to cow herd product

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Last month focused on genetic testing technologies and their opportunities for evaluating bull performance, this month let’s shift to cow herd productivity. Weaning heavy, fast growing calves starts with conception.

Cows conceiving every year and weaning even the most marginal calf can and still compete with a genetic giant with a zero in her average. A cow gets a zero in several ways such as failing to breed, aborting a calf, calf born dead, or the calf dies for any reason prior to weaning. With all these chances to ruin the average, failing to breed is easily the most impactful because it’s the earliest in the sequence.

One could argue that failing to breed is the most impactful due to timing in two ways. Failing to breed occurs at a management point where keeping the cow requires the greatest investment going forward. She just weaned a calf, is likely at the low point in body condition reserves and is facing the most expensive development period due to weather and forage availability.

For some operations the challenges facing the open cow outlined above are still worth “one more year”. If only it were that short, in reality if she gets bred the same day she checks open the opportunity for payback on this greater than average risk investment is 16+ months. (283 days gestation + 205 weaning).

There are certainly arguments one can make for retaining open cows. The goal of recovering sunk costs is a powerful motivator to sink more cost. The economics of trying to breed open cows following pregnancy check again are much less compelling than feeding cull cows most years. Either approach needs a well thought out budget and management plan especially in a year where forage is limited and cost of gain on good steers is north of a dollar.

The discussion above makes the assumption the operation is pregnancy diagnosing the cows. Surprisingly this is an assumption that isn’t true across the beef industry. The National Animal Health Monitoring Survey (NAHMS) is conducted every 10 years and provides many lagging insights to practice use in beef cattle operations.

The most recent publication of the NAHMS report was July 2021 reflecting survey results from 2017. This report outlines management practices and attitudes by herd size: Small (1-49) Medium (50-199) and Large >200 as well as by region: East, Central, and West.

As we think about technology in the beef supply chain, diagnosing pregnancy does not seem that cutting edge. Results suggest that adoption of pregnancy testing technology across all operations in the beef industry is low, 31.6%. Not surprisingly palpation was highest at 19.3% of operations with ultrasound at 8.8% and blood testing at 3.5%. Adoption of pregnancy testing technology was 56% higher in 2017 than the 20.2% of operations using palpation or ultrasound in 2007.

Some operations may use multiple pregnancy diagnosis methods, making the total adoption rate seem greater than in actual practice. Evaluating the data using a singular method shows clear differences in pregnancy diagnosis adoption by operation size.

The larger the operation the greater the use of the technology. 53.6% of large operations used palpation compared to 29.3% in medium and 14.2% in small operations. Similar trends hold for ultrasound use, 39.4% in large operations compared to 16.0% in medium and 4.7% in small operations. When one compares these data to the 31.5% overall adoption rate, the influence of the greater number of small to medium size operations on pregnancy diagnosis adoption is apparent.

Pregnancy diagnosis represents one of the most impactful management technologies available to the cow herd. One often overlooked opportunity pregnancy diagnosis offers is control of the calving season without the need of bull removal. The NAHMS data shows a similar pattern exists for calving season (breeding season) by operation size. Seventy-seven percent of large operations have defined calving seasons whereas 60.2% of medium and 36.9% of small operations have defined calving seasons.

Using pregnancy diagnosis operations can provide longer term bull exposure to capitalize on marketing of short-bred cows that do not fit the operation’s calving season. For operations suggesting pregnancy diagnosis is an unfavorable cost to benefit, consider re-evaluating the value of fewer days spent checking calving cows, tighter cowherd nutrition management window and a more uniform calf crop.

Justin Sexten is vice president of strategy for Performance Livestock Analytics.

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