written by John Paterson, PhD
Emeritus Professor at Montana State University
When I was visiting about record keeping programs recently, a rancher was overheard to say “I don’t see much use in collecting time consuming individual records for commercial cow herds. Pregnancy testing and my eyeball can let me know all I need to determine if a cow stays for another year.” Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but with increasing demands continually being placed on ranchers to ensure sustainability, records are a necessary part of a ranch business. Records provide benchmarks so that we can determine strengths and weaknesses of our ranch operations and how we demonstrate continuous improvement. How records are kept varies from the very rudimentary to the very complex. When asked several ranchers how they kept their records the answers varied: from “On the scale house wall”; “On the back of my Copenhagen can”; “In my IRM Red Book”; “On an Excel Spreadsheet”or “On a Stand-alone Computer Program”. The following table summarizes the different types of record keeping systems used by different herd sizes (NAHMS 2011).
When averaged across all operations, 83.3% of ranchers collected information about their operations, with the majority of these records kept in a hand-written form (78.6%). As the herd increased in size, the rancher was more apt to keep records on a computer.
In order to collect records, animals need some form of individual identification if the goal is to identify individual animals to monitor changes over time; weaning weights of calves, pregnancy, sire effects, etc. The following table describes common methods of animal identification. These data were collected between 2007 and 2008 (NAHMS).
The plastic ear tag was the most commonly used form of individual animal identification. The percentage of operations that used any form of individual animal ID on at least some cows ranged from 59% for operations with 1-49 cows to 89% of operations with 200 or more cows.
What information should be collected? Dr. Karl Harborth from LSU wrote an insightful article about where the beef industry could have the greatest impact on sustainability; improving calving rate. The factors that influenced calving percentage include nutrition, health, genetics and body condition score. A cow with a low body condition score is one that will have difficulty getting bred in a timely manner to maintain a yearly calving schedule. In addition to having a goal of a high calving rate, the distribution of when the calves are born can have significant financial consequences.
As an example, let’s compare the theoretical calving distribution of two herds, Ideal vs. Poor.
For the “Ideal” calving distribution, 90% of the calves were born during the first 42 days compared with only 40% of calves born during the first 42 days for the “Poor” calving distribution. The later the calves are born in the calving season; the potential for lighter calves at weaning exists. The Ideal system weaned 56,600 lbs. of calf compared to 48,400 lbs. for the Poor distribution system. At today’s prices, the difference in income value could exceed more than $14,000 if calves sold for $1.80/lb. The challenge for the rancher is to determine what caused the poor distribution. Was it because the cows were in a poor body condition at breeding time due to drought or poor feeding conditions (look at the number of open cows)? Was it due to disease (e.g. Trich)? Or was it due to an infertile bull? More importantly, how can you correct this problem?
Another conclusion that can be garnered from the records is to determine if cows are calving every year. Let’s assume for the “Poor” distribution herd the average calving cycle was increased to 390 days compared with 365 days for the “Ideal” herd. At 2 lbs./day gain for a nursing calf, this difference for the Ideal herd could be 25 days longer nursing x 2.0 lbs./day gain x $1.80/lb. value of a weaned calf. This would mean that cows in the Ideal cowherd could on average produce $90 more calf weaning weight than the Poor cowherd.
The new technology that you should consider is to DNA test replacement heifers to determine the ones with high stay-ability, calving ease, gain, docility and weaning weights of their calves.
These examples are reasons why simple record keeping can help to identify and solve problems that result in poor calving distribution and reduced weaning weights. Record keeping systems do not have to be sophisticated; they just need to be used. Hand written results summarized from the IRM Redbook is a great place to start because it will allow you to benchmark your herd and give you clues on how to improve productivity and sustainability.
Paterson is currently Territory Manager for GeneSeek Corp. a DNA testing company.