Why Should I Keep Records on My Cowherd?

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.

 

Cow Sense Chronicle || Night Feeding for Daytime Calving

Written by Rachel Endecott, Beef Cattle Specialist

We’ve all experienced that middle‐of‐the‐night calving incident that sure would have been easier to manage if it had happened in the daylight. Some ranchers use an evening feeding strategy to shift more cows to calve during the day.

A case study comparing two sets of calving data with different feeding times illustrates this phenomenon well (Jaeger, et al. 2008. Professional Animal Scien st. 24:247). One group of cows was fed between 6 and 8 am (15 years of data, 1210 observations) and another group of cows was fed between 4 and 6 pm ( 5 years of data, 537 observations). Researchers divided the day into six, 4‐hour periods starting at 6 am and recorded the number of cows who calved during each 4‐hour period.

Cows who were fed in the morning had nearly equal distribution of cows calving during each period of the day. This resulted in nearly equal proportions of cows calving between 6 am and 6 pm (52%) and those calving between 6 pm and 6 am (48%).

Cows who were fed in the evening did not have an equal distribution of cows calving during each period of the day. In fact, 85% of cows calved between 6 am and 6 pm and only 15% calved between 6 pm and 6 am.

There are many factors in addition to timing of feeding that can override the timing of calving. Research in cattle and other species suggests that physical activity, daily variation in hormonal secretion, ambient temperature, or day length may play a role.

Questions for Rachel? Rachel.endecott@montana.edu or 406-994-3747

Calving Season Photos On Our Facebook Page

Have you been following our calving season photos on Facebook?

During the past few months, ranchers across Montana have been sending us photos from their ranches during calving season. Many of the photos feature the next generation of Montana ranchers had at work and learning about ranch life from their mentors and parents. We’d love to see these photos continue as the seasons and tasks change throughout the year!

Below are a few of our favorite posts from the season. Be sure to Like our Facebook page, share these posts with your friends and send us your photos and videos that document tasks during the changing seasons in Montana ranch life. This is a great way to share your hard work with folks who may not always have an opportunity to experience what it takes to bring beef to our plates.

Post your photos and video clips on our Facebook page or email them to ryan@mtbeef.org. Include some background on what’s happening in the photos so we can help others learn more about your work on the ranch. And be sure to follow our posts on Instagram and Twitter as well!





Do you have photos or video clips to share from #ranchlife this season? Be sure to send them our way so we can share Montana ranching with folks across the country to help them learn more about the families behind our beef supply!

Postpartum Interval and Fertility | Rancher Education

Rachel Endecott, Montana State University Extension Beef Cattle SpecialistBy Dr. Rachel Endecott, MSU Extension Beef Cattle Specialist

After calving, cows go through a period of temporary infertility known as postpartum anestrus. Cows will not experience estrous cycles during this time. Another common term associated with this phenomenon is postpartum interval, which is the time from calving to the subsequent conception. Postpartum interval plays an important role in determining a cow’s calving interval, or the number of days from calving date in one year to calving date the next year. To maintain a 365-day calving interval, a cow must have a postpartum interval of 80-85 days. If a shorter calving interval is desired to move the cow up in the calving cycle, she must have a postpartum interval of less than 80-85 days.

Several factors can influence the length of the postpartum anestrous period, including uterine involution, short cycling, suckling effects, and nutritional status. Uterine involution is the regression of the uterus—in both structure and function—to a status that is capable of carrying another pregnancy. This entails the uterus returning to a non-pregnant size, shape, and position, shedding all fetal membranes, and the repair of uterine tissues. This process is completed in approximately 20-40 days post-calving if no complications arise.

The first ovulation postpartum often occurs without visual signs of the cow being in heat, and is often followed by abnormal function of the corpus luteum (CL). Normal CL lifespan takes up 14-18 days of the typical 21-day estrous cycle of a beef cow. The short estrous cycles experienced by cows overcoming postpartum anestrus are characterized by a CL lifespan of 10 days or less. This is thought to be due to high levels of prostaglandin production and metabolism by the uterus during uterine involution. Prostaglandin is responsible for regression and death of the CL in a normal estrous cycle, but at the elevated levels described, that regression and death of the CL is premature. If fertilization of the egg from this ovulation were to occur, maternal recognition of pregnancy would fail as CL regression would take place too soon, and the embryo would be lost.

A nursing calf can be a factor in the length of time a cow takes to return to cyclicity. One might assume that the energy demand of lactation is the major issue at play in this case, but it is actually the suckling effect and presence of a calf. Suckling triggers a complex system of brain and hormone responses that result in lack of ovulation.  Frequency of suckling has shown to have a threshold influence on postpartum fertility. Suckling sessions of two or less per day promote return to cyclicity while sessions of greater than two per day tend to cause postpartum anestrus. It has been suggested that the maternal bond between the dam and calf plays an important role in this phenomenon as well. This may be due to the cow seeing, smelling, or hearing her calf or all of the above!

Plane of nutrition is an important part of cattle management throughout the production cycle. Pre-calving nutrition is probably more important than post-calving nutrition in impacting postpartum interval length. Cows with inadequate energy reserves typically have several follicular waves before a successful ovulation. Without ovulation, no CL forms and estrous cycles are not initiated. Due to the dramatic increases in nutrient requirements during late gestation and early lactation, intervention to improve cow condition during times of the year when nutrient requirements are lowest (post-weaning, for example) will result in the most efficient use of nutrients by the cow at a lower cost.

Many different factors interact to impact the postpartum anestrous period in beef cows. This post-calving period of temporary infertility can’t be avoided, but through an understanding of the systems at play, it can be managed to ensure reproductive success during the breeding season.