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Optimize is the word

I've never cared for the phrase “maximum performance” when it comes to production agriculture. Maximum means the best or greatest possible with no expressed restrictions.

Rather, “optimum” performance is what we should shoot for, which means the most desirable performance possible under an expressed restriction. In production agriculture, that restriction should be cost-effectiveness.

While winter is a ways off yet, we need to think about getting optimum performance from our winterfeed and health programs, particularly in light of today's rising feed prices. Let's look at what can we do to optimize the cowherd's performance this winter.

Cull low-producing cows

The most direct way to accomplish this is to have the cowherd examined for pregnancy and cull open cows. It simply doesn't make sense to feed a cow all winter long if she isn't going to have a calf in the spring.

If cow production records have been kept, cull cows based on performance. Those cows that consistently deliver a calf late in the calving season, or perhaps wean a light calf every year, for instance, should be placed on the cull list.

Feed to condition

Many times, a producer has a handful of cows that are too thin (hard keepers) and a handful of cows that are too fat (easy keepers). In an attempt to put some condition on the hard keepers, many cattlemen will feed the entire group extra energy, thus making the easy keepers even more obese. This is inefficient and definitely doesn't make optimal use of resources.

Sorting off those thinner cows and feeding them a higher-energy ration could save a great deal of money, as could sorting off the easy keepers and feeding them a less energy-dense ration. Such sorting could most effectively be done by having your herd health veterinarian body condition score (BCS) each cow as it's preg-checked.

If you continue to have cows that always need “a little more feed” than the rest of your cows, maybe it's time to sell those hard-keeping cows. The long-term goal is to have a herd of cows that can thrive in your environment without that extra feed.

Generally, the most efficient time to improve the BCS of the cow herd is after weaning and before the third trimester of gestation. Before weaning, the cow is producing milk, and either attempting to conceive or gestating a fetus. The third trimester is when fetal growth is the most taxing for the dam. So the time period between these events is when most efficient weight gain can occur. The cow's condition prior to calving is the most important factor in how quickly she will conceive for the next calf crop.


As we apply more and more science to beef-production efficiency, it can become very difficult for the producer to keep up with all the new information. Producers should take a serious look at developing a consulting relationship with their herd-health veterinarian, as well as a professional nutritionist.

Many herd-health veterinarians may already be working with a nutritionist whom they know can become an asset to the beef business. Perhaps they can arrange a meeting where all three of you can work out a plan together. These meetings should include evaluating (or perhaps establishing) herd-production records, setting goals, making plans to achieve those goals, and evaluating current practices employed by the farm or ranch.

Changes are coming

The ethanol industry has already shown us that changes are coming. Most beef producers will have to make some basic changes in order to remain profitable. Adapting to change is very seldom easy.

I have a colleague who signs off his e-mails with a quotation I think sums things up nicely: “If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got.”

Dave Sjeklocha, DVM, is a feedlot consultant at the Haskell County Animal Hospital in Sublette, KS. He can be reached at 620-675-8180 or