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Is It Time to 'Ramp Up' Your Cattle Management?

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The other day, one of my cooperators related an experience that had shaken him up considerably. He's a low-input, commercial cow-calf producer who takes a handful of calves to the sale two or three times per year. At a recent sale he'd attended, the auctioneer made brief comments about several of the other drafts as they were offered things like their health program, age range and expected progeny differences (EPDs) on their sires. Although the cooperator's calves brought almost as much as the "advertised" drafts, he believed he'd seen a glimpse of the future, and I agreed. As a result, he wants to "ramp up" the management of his herd to be able to make better decisions internally and produce a more consistent, desirable product.

I began to describe steps for him to take to get to where he wants to be and told him to stop me when we'd reached his comfort level.

Fortunately, his calves are born within about a 3-month period except for just a few "outliers." Otherwise, we'd have to develop a plan to pare the calving season down to 90 days along with the other steps. I reminded him to be deliberate about it from now on by putting the bulls out and removing them at specific times.

Here's what I advised him to do:

  1. Individually identify the cows. It is essential to know one from the other to deal with them one-on-one. I recommended a uniquely numbered ear tag at the first opportunity. At the same time, write that number on an individual record card for each cow, along with her brucellosis tag number, physical description and anything else you know about her specifically (source, age, etc.).
  2. For the rest of this calving period and every year from now on, record when each cow calves. It doesn't have to be the exact day; birth week is fine. This piece of information will show how the herd is distributed during the calving season, and you'll know which cows don't calve. With two years' data, you can verify whether each cow is calving every 365 days. This basic information allows you to begin assessing the most important factor affecting profitability: reproductive efficiency.
  3. When you process the calves for the first time, put a unique number tag in each of them as well. Match them up with their dams before weaning. At the very least, this will tell you which cows bring a calf to the weaning pen. Here's a caution, though: Don't be tempted to look at the pairs at weaning and infer individual cow productivity based on calf size. You must have one more piece of information to do that a weaning weight.
  4. Figure out a way to get an individual weaning weight. Find a scale somewhere at a neighbor's, the county fair barn, FFA chapter, veterinarian, auction barn, county agent's, etc. Make the effort, because with a weaning weight and the other information you've kept to this point, a whole new realm of decision-making is just a couple of calculations away.
  5. You can put the entire herd on a level playing field by adjusting their calves' weaning weights to a constant 205 days of age and indexing each against the average of the group. Now, you can hold each cow accountable for her production relative to the other cows in the herd and make accurate culling decisions.
  6. Calculate your "percent calf crop" every year the number of calves weaned divided by the number of cows exposed to produce that calf crop. This is the single most descriptive measure of reproductive efficiency.
  7. Develop a comprehensive herd health program with your veterinarian. As you implement the program, record the date, detailed information about the products used, the class of livestock being worked, route of administration, site of injections and other practices being performed.
  8. Define EPD criteria for all bulls in the future. Purchase only those bulls with EPDs as good as or better than these minimum standards.
  9. Get a "snapshot" of the kind of product you are producing by participating in a feedout program like the OK Steer Feedout in Oklahoma or the Texas Ranch to Rail Program. This will help identify selection criteria for the future.

This is what I consider a basic program for a commercial cow-calf producer. These recommendations address many internal deficiencies the cooperator had been operating under, as well as some of the external market forces that are increasingly coming to bear on the cattle business.