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Solving The "Open-Cow" Dilemma Requires Reproduction & Fertility Management

cow reproduction vital to ranch success

I’m an older commercial rancher who has tried to carefully watch what happens on the land and in the pasture, and then put some numbers to it. This isn’t a lot of fancy math; it’s simply attaching dollars and cents to some inputs and outputs. Here are some random thoughts from that exercise.

Are reproduction and fertility the same? It depends on what you include in your definition of fertility. I don’t want to debate the definitions, so let’s look at how I think about reproduction.

To me, reproduction is the number of animals I’m able to sell as a percent of a beginning inventory. I would include the factors of pregnancy rate, embryonic death loss, neonatal death loss, weaned calf-crop percentage and subsequent death loss. I can’t sell calves that were never conceived or that died.

I like the concept of “calves weaned per cows exposed,” but I don’t like the records and the adjustments required to get to an accurate number. In addition, I want my team’s focus to be on this year’s pregnancy rate and this year’s weaned calf crop percentage.

To get back to “calves weaned per cows exposed,” I’ve chosen to simply multiply the current year’s weaned calf crop percentage by the previous year’s pregnancy rate. It’s a very good proxy and will get you the info you need. With this info, however, we have only accounted for losses up to weaning; we must now subtract yearling and cow death loss. Remember, we can’t sell those that die.

Let’s talk about longevity

What is longevity? If you think about it, a cow can live many years in the herd if we don’t expect her to raise a calf every year. After we get rid of a few misfits, most of our culling happens because a cow either fails to conceive or wean a calf. Therefore, I’ve concluded that longevity is greatly determined by fertility, and fertility is greatly determined by how well a cow fits her environment.

Many years ago, I was introduced to the concept that increasing turnover was one way to increase profit. This basically means increasing the operational size. I agreed, but wanted to look at turnover in a different way.

To me, turnover has come to mean the number and the value of animals that I can sell from a fixed size resource. It didn’t take much arithmetic to figure out that “weaned calf crop percentage” was my most important cattle metric followed by “death loss percentage” and “pregnancy rate.” I even decided it was more important to have more calves than to have bigger calves.

The next “crazy” turnover idea was to set aside our “grandma,” or older, cows that we were fairly sure shouldn’t stay another year in our environment. At sometime in mid- to late-August, we would wean the calves from these cows and sell the cows before the fall price break – probably at 100 lbs. heavier and $5-$10/cwt. more than if we’d waited 1½-2 months to sell her at the normal weaning date. We were also able to allocate the feed those cows would have consumed during the next two months to other livestock.

Maternal is more than milk

What are maternal traits? Many people believe that maternal means milk. However, I think milk is a growth and inefficiency trait, as it makes calves grow faster at a very high cost. The conversion of grass to milk to calf growth is very inefficient. Cows that give a lot of milk have poor maintenance efficiency and often have a difficult time breeding back without a lot of expensive feed.

To me, maternal traits include the ability to conceive early in the breeding season, carry the calf to term, and give birth unassisted to a healthy calf. It also includes providing enough milk for good immune system development and adequate calf growth, the ability and natural instinct to immediately mother the calf and get it to nurse quickly, take good care of it until weaning, and then to do it over and over.

Pay attention to bull costs

With today’s high bull prices, it’s increasingly important to pay attention to bull-to-cow ratio. I’ve never hesitated to use one bull per 30 cows. However, research and some good rancher experience indicate the ratios of one bull per 40-50 cows can work well. However, never having done this, I have no experience to draw on.

However, it’s not difficult to have bull depreciation costs of $50/calf born. After adding interest, feed and an annual breeding soundness examination, the cost can approach $75-80/calf born.

If you can double the number of cows per bull and still get them pregnant, the cost could be halved. This is one area, however, in which incremental change is advised rather than one big change. I’m concerned that there are a lot of bulls with marginal fertility. Libido is a definite factor in bull fertility.

Thoughts on heterosis

Heterosis is very important to fertility. I wouldn’t strive for maximum heterosis, but 50-80% of maximum is a good target depending on your operation and your seedstock sources.

My bottom line is that nothing about the cow is as economically important as reproduction. If we fail to cull open cows and dry cows, are we inadvertently selecting for infertility even if the heritability is low?

I continue to read articles claiming that heifers that calve early in their first calving season will make better lifetime cows. I agree, but most of the articles contend that it’s important to develop the heifers so that a high percentage will conceive early in the breeding season. I struggle with what this might imply.


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My previous columns indicate that I don’t like over-developed heifers. Yes, you can get a lot of heifers pregnant the first time, but later breedings and calf performance might not be so good. I prefer to manage heifers like stocker heifers; expose quite a few more than you need for 30 days or less. The truly good ones get pregnant – not the ones that you over-conditioned to get pregnant. I’ve come to believe that this is reasonably effective selection for fertility.

In my conversations with ranchers, I hear of way too many open cows. I think there could be issues with cow size, milk production, a lack of heterosis and bull fertility. Most of these can be overcome with a lot of expensive feed, but that doesn’t work economically. I prefer to start with moderately developed heifers that breed early in their first breeding season; maintain a reasonable level of heterosis in the herd; keep cow size and milking ability in check; cull open, dry and late-calving cows; and use good, fertile bulls. 

 Burke Teichert, consultant on strategic planning for ranches, is retired as vice president and general manager of Deseret. He can be reached at [email protected]


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