In February, 2002, I was in Denver, Colo., for the NCBA's (National Cattlemen's Beef Association's) annual meeting. At those meetings, I sat in the audience and listened to speakers present information on a wide array of topics, most dealing with cutting edge technology that left me excited and awestruck of the potential for the future of our beef industry. However, upon reflection, I can't help but remind myself that cutting edge technology, such as value based marketing, individual identification, ready to eat entries and DNA analysis, become as relevant as "polka dots" on a boar hog unless operational priorities are identified and managed.
If you hang around individuals within the cattle industry long enough, you start to get a good feel for where we place our priorities. Not counting weather, it seems that most conversations I have been privy to evolve around where the market is or where it's going and what management practices to implement to facilitate a more profitable calf crop. After these conversations, I am sometimes reminded of a lecture given by Dr. Bill Turner at Texas A&M University (I won't state how long ago it was) pertaining to economically important traits to producers within the beef industry. Yes, carcass traits, such as quality grades and yield grades, as well as performance traits such as pre/post weaning growth, were important points of the lecture. However, without managing/selecting for the most important economic trait, then genotypic selection, market conditions and even the weather, are as relevant as, well, you know the story.
I am not telling most of you anything new when I regurgitate the sentiments of Turner and others and say that reproduction is the most important concept to keep in mind for profit driven cow/calf producers.
Although lowly heritable, an ongoing selection program geared towards improving the long-term reproductive capabilities of your female base is one of the most important aspects of a cow/calf production system due to its relative economic value. However, there are additional management practices, such as implementing a quality herd health program and monitoring nutritional status, that have to be considered in order to ensure reproductive proficiency.
Dr. John Kirkpatrick, associate professor and director at Boren Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at Oklahoma State University, gave a presentation at our last livestock school, entitled "Health Programs for Successful Breeding." Kirkpatrick identified and outlined the mode of action of some of the more common pathogens (bacterial and viral) causing reproductive inefficiency, while also yielding insight into how to deal with a problem. Prevention and treatment consist of three main principles: 1) prevent pathogen entry (ensure biosecurity); 2) identify, isolate and eliminate pathogens on premise (ensure biocontainment); and 3) increase animal resistance to pathogen.
One of the more common ways to approach Principles 1 and 3 is to implement a sound herd health program. Kirkpatrick identified infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR), bovine viral diarrhea (BVD), Leptospirosis sp. and campylobacter (vibriosis) as the more common pathogens to cow/calf producers in our service area and so should be included in a vaccination schedule. Furthermore, Kirkpatrick offered two options for implementing a herd health program. The first option occurs 30 days prior to breeding. Therefore, for spring calving producers (if you have not already done so), this means yesterday. The second option occurs at weaning and involves only using a killed vaccine. Also, perform a complete breeding soundness exam on all bulls prior to turnout. This procedure may cost you a little but at least it won't cost you a calf crop.
In addition to implementing a sound herd health program, monitor nutritional status going into the breeding season. This is done most often by implementing a scoring system based on "condition" or "flesh." The most common system used by animal scientists today is based on a scale of one to nine (1 = least condition, 9 = most condition). I am a firm believer in managing body condition throughout the year. On one hand, there are times when it is optimal to allow a "slip" in condition, whereas on the other hand there are times when condition is necessary and should be monitored closely. One of those "monitor closely" times is right now for a spring calving herd. The old adage is, "Ensure a body condition score (BCS) of at least 5.5 and a positive plane of nutrition going into the calving season for all females." By doing so, you allow for a decline in condition caused by peak milk production (45 to 60 days post-partum) and stressful environmental/forage conditions prior to the onset of the breeding season. Be careful to maintain enough (at least a BCS of 5) condition going into the breeding season to meet realistic "breed-up" expectations. Keep in mind that condition scoring is very subjective and, therefore, although we should be close, a female that I am scoring at a 5 could be a 5.5 to you. The key point is to become familiar enough with your cattle to use this method to monitor a particular herd's nutritional status throughout the year.
Remember that it is easier to maintain condition than it is to obtain condition. Manage towards maximizing reproduction efficiency by prioritizing to match forage characteristics, such as quality and quantity, with animal requirements to work for you rather than against you. Also, ensure nutritional needs are being met and implement a sound vaccination program prior to the breeding season. By taking these managerial actions, hopefully you will be pleasantly surprised in October at preg-check time and, because we prioritized our thinking, we can all get excited about some of the progressive ideas that are floating around within our industry.