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Skipping The Basics Can Carry A Big Bottom-Line Penalty

focus on basic cowcalf management to improve bottom line

A breeding soundness exam (BSE) is a fertility exam performed on bulls by a veterinarian; ideally it’s performed annually. It consists of three components – scrotal circumference, a physical exam, and a semen evaluation, and it typically costs between $50 and $150/bull. That’s not an insignificant amount of money, but it pales in comparison to the lost revenue of open or late-calving cows.

Yet, as Les Anderson, University of Kentucky Extension beef specialist, points out, fewer than 30% of U.S. cattlemen routinely subject bulls to a BSE. That's according to the latest data from the National Animal Health Monitoring Survey (NAHMS).

“I am amazed by how few people obtain a BSE in their herd bull before each breeding season,” Anderson says. “We purchase car, health, life, and crop insurance; why wouldn't we purchase a little breeding-season insurance?”

To illustrate his point, Anderson cites a producer who contacted him to say he wished he had BSE-tested his bulls prior to breeding season. His moment of clarity came when he found 21 open cows (out of a total of 43 head) that had been serviced by two bulls that turned out to be infertile.

Anderson says the rancher told him the bulls had received a BSE at purchase 2-3 years before, but hadn’t had one since. The bottom line to the story is that the hundred dollars or so this rancher saved in not performing BSEs on his two bulls ahead of breeding season, ended up costing him $15-20,000 in lost income from the 21 cows that were open.


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Anderson’s story puts a great perspective on the value of being proactive. Unfortunately, however, a shortfall in proactive management doesn’t appear to be that uncommon in today’s U.S. beef industry. According to the 2007 (NAHMS) Beef/Cow-Calf report:

  • More than 60% of all operations did not vaccinate calves for anything prior to weaning.
  • More than 80% of all operations did not vaccinate replacement heifers for any reproductive diseases.
  • More than 80% of all operations did not vaccinate replacement heifers for any respiratory diseases.
  • 75% of all operations did not vaccinate replacement heifers for the respiratory/reproductive diseases (IBR/BVD).
  • More than 90% of all operations did not do any diagnostic screening for internal parasites.

As Jay Brown, founder and president of Vetgate Global (, pointed out in a recent edition of BEEF Cow-Calf Weekly: “The NAHMS report documents that most cows, calves, and bulls in the U.S. cow-calf herd aren’t receiving optimum animal health care.”

But, there’s a very real bottom-line impact to this shortfall as well. Brown points out that research indicates that cattle that suffer from respiratory disease during the grazing or feedlot phase yield lower-quality, less tender carcasses, which translate into less value. In addition, cattle infected with even a subclinical case of internal and/or external parasites have lower-grading carcass grades, lower red meat yields, and produce poorer-grading hides.

The situation is reminiscent of the tagline for the old Fram Oil Filter commercial a couple of decades back, “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.”

The U.S. beef industry can and should strive to do better.


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