“Early pregnancy testing is a tool we can use to sort and market cattle to their highest and best value,” says Aaron Berger, Extension educator in beef systems at the University of Nebraska’s (UNL) Panhandle Research and Extension Center “It also allows us to use the information to strategically manage cows in terms of when we give them inputs.”
Some of the risk management potential Berger alludes to is obvious, like pouring groceries into a non-paying cow longer than necessary — especially when it’s costlier harvested feed.
Then there’s the opportunity to market culls before prices decline seasonally or late-breds that fit someone else’s season, or to shift open heifers to their stocker and feedlot potential.
“Selling non-pregnant cows in August, when they weigh more and prices are seasonally higher, provides the opportunity for producers to capture more value from these cows than leaving the calves on the cows and waiting to pregnancy-test at weaning,” Berger explains in the Early Pregnancy Diagnosis webinar at UNL’s beef site. “Non-pregnant heifers and cows as well as cull bred cows can provide as much as 20% of the gross income to a cow-calf operation on an annual basis.”
Keep in mind, preg-checking continues to be unused by a mass majority of cow-calf producers. According to the most recent surveys from the National Animal Health Monitoring Service (NAHMS), only around 20% of producers exploit the technology. Admittedly, those surveys are closing in on their 11th birthday — before the advent of blood tests and the prevalence of ultrasound — but still.
Berger points out there are advantages and disadvantages to each of the most prevalent methods of diagnosing cow pregnancy: rectal palpation, ultrasound and blood tests. For him, choosing the method or combination of methods boils down to the available resources and economics.
“Do you have access to a good veterinarian who is accurate with palpation, or access to someone with ultrasound experience, and you want to use that information in a management scheme that will return dollars to you?” he asks. “It comes down to economics, and which method is going to provide you with the greatest return for the dollar invested.”
Sandy Johnson, an Extension beef specialist with Kansas State University (KSU), provided recent insight to the management power borne through early pregnancy testing.
These were replacement heifers bred via fixed-time artificial insemination. Natural-service sires were turned out 10 days after AI and removed 20 days later. Ultrasound was used for pregnancy diagnosis.
“Having a known breeding date makes predicting a service sire or calving date much easier, and a forced gap between AI and cleanup natural service even more so,” Johnson explains in a recent KSU Beef Tips newsletter. “… We can get a preview of the next calving distribution if pregnancy diagnosis is done early enough to stage pregnancies. This data can inform management choices as cows continue through gestation.
“For example, if there are a large number of late calvers, late-gestation or early-calving rations might be altered, or these cows might be targeted for marketing in a bred cow sale. If young cows are late-bred, specific steps could be taken with their younger counterparts that might avoid the same problem. When drought or other issues impact pasture availability, this information can be used if hard culling decisions must be made.”
KSU’s Beef Cattle Institute recently developed a mobile phone app, Pregnancy Analytics, to help collect and monitor pregnancy data.
“It allows you to enter data chute-side and look at the projected calving distribution when you are finished,” Johnson explains. “Information is power, and expected calving dates and projected herd calving distribution is information that more producers should put to work.”