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Articles from 2017 In July

6 Trending Headlines: Montana ranchers need your help; PLUS: Take a virtual pasture tour

USFS / USDA photo wildfire

Cattle losses mount in Montana wildfires

"The only reason our horses are alive, our barn is still standing, our house is still there, is because of our neighbors. There were 14- and 16-year-old kids on the back of trucks holding hoses spraying water. Nobody has slept in days. The people that are here are the ranchers, and they have not stopped working; they have not gotten out of their graders. They are trying desperately to save these ranches.”

That’s Mary Brown’s description of wildfires that have scorched parts of Montana.  On her ranch, 400-plus cattle are either missing or dead. She said they are OK on food and water supplies and scared to bring in hay, lest it burn as well. She said the best help is monetary donations in order to help these ranchers begin to rebuild once this is over, reports The Fence Post.

Click here for more and for a list of places that are accepting donations.

Pruitt touts regulatory certainty as a key for a new, improved WOTUS

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt continued his multistate action tour in Oklahoma this past week, following visits to Utah, Minnesota and Arkansas earlier in July. The visit highlights the administrator's recent decision to begin the process to redefine the "Waters of the United States" (WOTUS) rule to help return power back to the states and provide regulatory certainty to farmers, landowners, and ranchers across the country.

He spoke of the need for "regulatory certainty" which he says will result in "folks knowing whether the rule applies to them or not so they will know how to allocate resources to comply and do what is necessary."

Pruitt promised that proposed language for a new WOTUS will be coming in September and he is hoping for a final new and improved WOTUS in the first quarter of 2018.

Click here to read and hear more on Pruitt’s ideas regarding WOTUS.

Monoslope barn maximizes cow comfort

Cows have a new place to calve in the deep-pack monoslope barn on the Gronewold farm, near Carthage, Ill., according to AgriNews.

“We decided to build this barn because we wanted more cows and I wanted to farm full time,” said Ashton Gronewold, who farms with his dad, Merlin, and brother-in-law, Evan Davidson. “This barn and doubling the cowherd seemed like the fastest, easiest way to get that done.”

The monoslope building is 100 feet wide by 252 feet long and it has three pens, a manure storage bay and calving pen. Feed bunks are located along both sides of the barn.

Click here to read more.

Feedyard profitability bolsters feeder cattle market

Profitability has allowed cattle feeders to aggressively buy feeder cattle. The result has been more steers and heifers placed on feed than a year ago and higher feeder cattle prices, according to the Daily Livestock Report.

Monthly Cattle on Feed reports show that net placements (number of cattle placed minus other disappearance) into feedlots with 1000 head or more capacity during the first six months of 2017 was 11.17 million head. That was a year-over-year jump of 1.10 million head or 11%. Further, the number of head placed during January through June was the largest for that timeframe since 2003.

Click here to read more.

Virtual pasture walk at the Flying Diamond Ranch

The Flying Diamond Ranch at Kit Carson, Colo., has been home to the Johnson family for five generations. Until about 30 years ago, the ranch was managed traditionally. Cattle grazed 1,500-acre pastures for six months a year.

But after Scott Johnson went to a seminar presented by Alan Savory and learned about what was then called “Holistic Resource Management,” he began making changes. Now pastures are about 300 acres and cattle only spend about 10 to 20 days a year on them.

Drought management has been the driving force for the last 15 years at the ranch. Scott’s son, Will, says that part of their success in making it through is a result of the grass monitoring system developed with the help of the NRCS and their Conservation Stewardship program.

Click here to read and watch more.

Want to avoid West Nile virus? Remember to vaccinate your horses

Looking for ways to protect yourself from the West Nile virus this summer? Don't forget to vaccinate your horses, officials say. "If you've got horses affected, people are at risk, too," said Robert Erickson, a field veterinarian with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.

Nearly 80% of West Nile cases in horses occur in August and September, the department says. In addition, one in three horses die after showing signs of the illness, reports The Deseret News, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Click here to read more.



The killing of doctor last week is latest sign of how deadly the opiate crisis has become. Dr. Todd Graham was killed. There's good reasons for physicians to limit opioid prescriptions. There are high addictions in several states. Rural areas seem to be hit especially hard. 

They are out in the field now and on the phone, compiling information for the August Crop Report due on Aug. 10. There's tendency for USDA to underestimate soybean crop. It was under 14 of past 20 years.

There were 15,500 airplane movements during the week at Osk Kosh. Weather was stunning. Reunion of Apollo astronauts too.

What can we actually do to cut antibiotic use?

Burt Rutherford Moving calves

"I’ll worry about that when the cow police show up.” I received this response on social media a couple of years ago, after I pointed out to someone that their antibiotic regimen advice was in violation of federal regulations. I replied that, indeed, “cow police” would not be beyond the realm of possibilities if people are cavalier about how they use antibiotics.

While this statement may seem extreme, antimicrobial use and resistance will continue to be major concerns for both human health and animal health. And it is clear that we will have more regulatory supervision of antimicrobial use in the future. For evidence, we need to look no further than the veterinary feed directive (VFD) that was enacted on Jan. 1 of this year.

As we move into weaning this fall, the reality of a VFD will come to light for many producers for the first time. If their calves have a health issue, producers will be required to seek the advice of their herd health veterinarian in order to use a feed-grade antibiotic. It remains to be seen if this requirement will reduce antibiotic use; most likely, it will.

But is government oversight the best way to reduce antibiotic use? We can say, “Well, we’re going to have government oversight anyway, so we might as well get used to it.” But I think we can all agree that this approach would not be in our best interest as an industry.

I recently spoke at a National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) conference in Washington, D.C., on combating antimicrobial resistance. The discussion was very balanced. It was encouraging that the finger-pointing between human health and animal health that has occurred in the past was simply not there. However, the beef industry garnered considerable discussion, and I believe it was because many in attendance did not understand the complexities of the beef production cycle.

The vertical integration of the pork and chicken industries provides the ability to manage those animals from their date of birth to their date of harvest. The segmented nature of the beef industry, obviously, does not allow for this. These differences were very perplexing for many who were not familiar with agriculture. I point this out because NASEM is a very influential voice for domestic and global policies, so this group will have considerable influence as more regulations are considered.

In my opinion, the key to reducing antibiotic use is to improve cattle management. Management tools we have at our disposal include vaccines; low-stress cattle handling; low-stress weaning techniques; shelter from weather extremes; and a good, balanced ration.

The value of good management is more apparent when considering the process as cattle leave the home farm and end up at a feedyard. Livestock auctions are the primary market source for feeder cattle, which results in commingling of cattle from dozens of other farms. If purchased through an order buyer, calves are often commingled further at the order buyer’s headquarters. At this point, it is conceivable that the number of farms and ranches represented could exceed 100.

Then the calves are loaded on a truck and hauled to the feedyard, where they come in contact with even more cattle. This journey is stressful; and when we think about the entirety of the process, the importance of good management from the home farm through the receiving period at the feedyard can’t be overstated.

We can consider these issues to be a problem or an opportunity. I hope it is accepted as an opportunity — an opportunity to develop a better working relationship with your herd health veterinarian. I think that would be much better than having to deal with the cow police.

Antibiotics: Fuzzy connections between humans and animals

Sorting off a sick steer

Establishing a direct cause-and-effect relationship between antibiotic use in livestock and antibiotic resistance in humans may be only slightly more difficult than mapping a path between trends in coffee consumption and the color of a penguin’s beak.

At least it is if you demand scientific proof rather than extrapolation and inferential leaping.

The idea bears repeating: Establishing a direct link between antibiotic use in livestock and antibiotic resistance in humans. Not the fact that antibiotic use in each creates antibiotic resistance within that same population. Not that humans and animals can swap antibiotic-resistant organisms back and forth.

Read more from this series:

Part 1: Where we stand on the antibiotic dilemma

Part 2: 6 antibiotic myths explained

Part 3: The economics of antibiotic use

Part 4: How antibiotic overuse in human medicine impacts beef producers

“Current literature is inadequately detailed to establish a causal relationship between antibiotic use in agricultural animals and antibiotic-resistant campylobacteriosis in humans,” says Mary A. McCrackin, DVM, veterinary medical officer and associate professor of comparative medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina.

McCrackin is the primary author of a recent study looking for a link between antibiotic use in food animals and drug-resistant foodborne campylobacteriosis. In a companion study, with similar results, she and fellow researchers looked for a link between antibiotic use in food animals and salmonellosis in humans.

How bad is it?

According to Antibiotic Resistant Threats in the United States, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), campylobacteriosis and salmonellosis are among the most serious threats in terms of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans.

 In 2013, minimum estimates of drug-resistant Campylobacter infections were 310,000, with deaths estimated at 28. For drug-resistant non-typhoidal Salmonella, it was 100,000 infections and 40 deaths. In total, CDC listed 18 antibiotic-resistant microorganisms, resulting in 2.05 million infections and 23,488 deaths.

“At least sometimes, Campylo-bacter and Salmonella can get through the food chain to people. So, that’s one question,” explained Mike Apley, a BEEF Vet’s Opinion columnist, veterinarian and professor of production medicine and clinical pharmacology at Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, during an Animal Care Resources webinar earlier this year. He was talking about the application of antibiotic stewardship in veterinary medicine.

“The other question is about the reservoir of resistance,” Apley says. What about us selecting for resistant organisms in animal agriculture, and then those pass to people through the food chain, through direct contact or through the environment? Then those resistance genes lay awaiting opportunity in our intestinal flora. Then when we take antibiotics, they flare up and cause a problem? Apley asks.

So far, Apley says there is insufficient information to say whether or not antibiotic use in livestock could be even a small part of contributing to a resistance reservoir in humans.

“If you look at these 2 million cases and 23,000 deaths (CDC data above) and add in Clostridium difficile, [which may be] some part of 400,000 infections between Salmonella and Campylobacter, we wouldn’t be all of those,” Apley says. “And those two account for 60 deaths total.”

This isn’t to trivialize that in any way, but to put it in perspective, Apley says. “Yes, I think food animals do have a direct relationship through the food chain with direct cause, [but are] a really small piece of the overall pie. The question of whether it’s part of establishing a resistance reservoir that contributes [to antibiotic-resistant pathogens in humans], I don’t know.”

Precautionary principle

There are plenty of theories about how antibiotic-resistant bacteria can be spread from animals to humans, but Apley explains scientists on both sides of the argument struggle to prove probability. In lieu of such information, regulators increasingly rely on something referred to as the precautionary principle. It’s a widely recognized approach in Europe.

“The precautionary principle says that if there’s enough information to cause me as a regulator to think that there’s a potential harm to human health, and that threat is big enough that if it snowballs and we can’t stop it [and] there can be great harm, then I’m going to remove that threat until someone can prove to me that it’s not a threat,” Apley says.

In other words, guilty until proven innocent.

“The FDA will adamantly deny using the precautionary principle, but when you look at the data showing that growth promotion use [of antibiotics] can be separated from prevention, control or therapeutic uses as far as selection for resistance — well, there is none.”

What scientific literature says

At last fall’s Antibiotic Symposia hosted by the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, McCrackin explained the aforementioned studies she was involved with explored one basic question:

“What published literature evidence actually exists to determine if there is a direct link between the use of antibiotics in agricultural animals that are being produced for food for people? And is there a clear connection between that antibiotic use and an increase or apparent increase in the prevalence of antibiotic resistant infections in humans, specifically related to food-borne illness?”

 The studies revolved around systematic literature reviews that included scoring studies based on the level of subjectivity to scientific rigor.

“We were very interested in the connections between the farm and the fork, between cows on the farm, the products that came from them and ultimately whether there was there a link to people,” McCrackin explains. They did the same with other species, including pork and poultry.

McCrackin emphasizes the Campylobacter study review doesn’t consider the environment, direct contact with domestic pets or wildlife. She also mentions that what she shared represented her own opinion based on the information.

Among highlights of various literature, one study looked at 30,000 growing turkeys. They were split between a control group and the treatment group receiving Tylosin in the water, according to label directions.

Macrolide (a class of antibiotics) resistance increased immediately after treatment and then declined after the antibiotic was removed. Detection of organisms in the resulting carcasses post-chill was very low.

Another study compared the prevalence of campylobacteriosis in conventionally raised hogs with those grown on antibiotic-free farms.

The prevalence of campylobacteriosis in animals on the farm was about the same, although the percentage of those organisms resistant to antibiotics was higher on conventional farms in the presence of antibiotics use.

But, McCrackin explains, “What is the long-term consequence of that in terms of what makes it to the consumer? Well, for beef and pork there may not be as a big of a problem as sometimes people would like to think … Campylobacteriosis is found at such low rates in commercial pork and beef that NARMS [National Antimicrobial Monitoring System] doesn’t even monitor for campylobacteriosis in those food products anymore.”

McCrackin and her group did find one paper showing direct transmission of antibiotic-resistant campylobacteriosis from an animal product to humans. It was from raw milk traced back to a Pennsylvania farm.

“A frustration in that particular paper is that there was no information about antibiotic use on that farm,” McCrackin explains. “We don’t know if the farm even used antibiotics, and we have no information about the people who were sick … had they had antibiotic treatment before they were exposed to the raw milk? We just don’t know because the information wasn’t there.”

McCrackin says such information gaps are common.

“In the context of food-borne illness, remember that there are lots of things besides bacteria that cause food-borne illness. In fact, norovirus causes much more gastrointestinal illness than campylobacteriosis.”

Keep in mind that McCrackin and her fellow researchers aren’t saying that campylobacteriosis and salmonellosis — the focus of their study — are the primary problems; but that in the context of antibiotic resistance, they are the problems their study addresses.

None of this is to say that looking for such relationships should be ignored. It is to say that antibiotic resistance in any species, let alone the links in between, are too complex for the kind of easy explanations that some proponents on both sides of the debate are fond of applying.

“It’s not about blaming other people. It shouldn’t be about the human health care industry blaming the agricultural or veterinary industries, or vice versa; this just happens. Biology happens regardless of which setting it’s in, and we all have to think about how we’re going to play our part,” McCrackin says.

This is the fifth part in a six-part series. Next month: Judicious use versus antibiotic stewardship.

Expert tips for pre- and post-weaning success

Fenceline weaning
Weaning with a fenceline is likely one of the most popular methods used, and it causes less stress on the calves than abruptly removing the calves from the cows. These calves were fenceline-weaned and then put on high-quality pasture. Now that they’re past weaning time and have their shots, they’re ready for the next stop along the beef marketing chain.

When it comes to weaning calves, an old saw comes to mind — ask 10 ranchers how to best wean calves and you’ll get 11 different answers. There are many ways to wean calves, but the goal is to minimize stress: to keep calves healthy, growing and gaining — without setbacks. 

Indeed, weaning is the most stressful time in the life of a calf, says David Bohnert, beef Extension specialist and ruminant nutritionist at Oregon State University. And weaning time is just the start; many calves go through additional stresses, such as vaccination; transportation; commingling with other calves at a sale barn, growing lot, stocker pasture or feedlot; and having to adjust to a new environment.

Compounded stresses resulting in illness or slower weight gain translates into less money for whoever is unlucky enough to own a set of calves that weren’t properly prepared for weaning and beyond. “Work done by our lab demonstrated that for each one-tenth pound of gain during the receiving period [above that of the stressed calves], we see almost a 20-pound increase in hot carcass weight at the end of the finishing period,” Bohnert says.

At current prices, that equates to a $35 to $40 increase in value at harvest. “Lower stress at weaning time not only increases carcass value, but saves money in costs of treatment for sick calves,” he says.

“If you retain ownership when you move calves to a growing lot or feedlot, it is advantageous to keep them home and put some age on them after weaning, and not send them until they’ve overcome the stress. This will decrease the number that get sick and increase gain. You can dramatically decrease costs associated with health care in the feedlot if you allow those calves 30 to 45 days at home after weaning [Vac45 program],” Bohnert says.

Weaning strategies vary, depending on facilities and age of calves being weaned, says Ron Gill, associate department head, Extension, at Texas A&M University. “The traditional weaning age is from about 5 to 8 months of age, sometimes older. Low-stress methods include fenceline weaning and two-stage weaning with nose flaps,” he says.

Nose-flap weaning

Katy Lippolis

Nose flaps are considered by many to be the least-stressful method of weaning. While using the nose flaps is a little more management-intensive, calves stay with their mothers during the weaning process. Since the calves can’t nurse, but can eat and drink from a bunk and a water source, weaning occurs without the usual bawling and pacing.

The flap doesn’t hinder eating or drinking, but makes it difficult to suckle. After nose flaps are installed, calves go back with the cows and go through the first phase of weaning. They’re unable to suckle, so the cow’s milk dries up — while the calf is still with its dam. 

This greatly reduces stress; the calf still has its mama for companionship and security, and the cow isn’t worried about her calf because it’s still with her. After five to seven days, the flaps are removed and the pairs can be separated, and they aren’t upset because weaning has already been accomplished.

Katy Lippolis, a graduate fellow in animal and rangeland sciences at Oregon State University, did her master's degree work at Colorado State University looking at low-stress weaning using nose flaps. Her current doctoral work at OSU is focused on management of weaned calves to mitigate the negative effects of stress, and optimize health and productivity in the feedlot.

“Much of my master's work was to evaluate weaning with nose flaps and how this affected cow performance, calf performance and carcass quality,” she says. Most producers who try nose flaps say it’s the least stressful way they’ve weaned calves. 

“When we sort them, putting calves one way and cows another, the calves just walk off and lie down and chew their cud, completely at ease and relaxed. The cows might turn around once and then just walk away. Once you break that nursing bond [which provided comfort as well as milk], the calf is ready to go,” she says.

“Anything you can do to reduce stress is beneficial,” says Gill. “The important thing is to not do anything else to cattle on the day you wean. This is difficult for some operations if they don’t have many opportunities to get cattle in, so they want to process the calves or the cows when they separate and sort off the calves — even though you want that day to be as quiet as possible for those cattle,” he explains.

Fenceline weaning

“A study at Ohio State University showed that with fenceline weaning, only about 15% had to be treated for BRD [bovine respiratory disease]. That number was doubled for calves that had to be transported at weaning. Almost 45% of calves put into a feedlot or drylot needed treatment,” Bohnert says.

Situations where Gill has seen fenceline weaning not work are when people process cattle, get them stirred up and stressed, and then put calves on one side of a fence and the cows on the other. “The cows and calves are in panic mode already, and may go through or over a fence to try to get back together,” Gill says.

With fenceline weaning, plan ahead to have adequate grazing for the calves. “Otherwise, you need to provide good hay, silage or a grain mix during this transition. That can run up your cost so much that it becomes unprofitable. Calculate the value of gain to see if it pencils out,” Gill says.

This kind of decision is never static; these factors are never exactly the same from year to year. “From a stewardship standpoint, I feel every rancher should wean calves at home. Yet from an economic standpoint, this may not always be best. If we can get them weaned at home, however [even at breakeven, financially], it’s better for the cattle and for the industry,” Gill stresses. The calves are less at risk for illness and will do better for the next owner.

“There are times, however, that it may be best to just send calves to town, right off the cow, if somebody else can manage them better. Some people have tried to keep calves at home and didn’t have the facilities, time or labor to do it right, and it turned into a bad deal. Those calves would have been better off shipped to someone else who had the time and resources to manage them correctly,” says Gill.


Regardless of the weaning strategy used, you must meet calves’ nutrition requirements. “We are removing an extremely nutritious food source, so we must give them an alternative,” says Lippolis. “If you take away milk without supplying something in its place, you may end up hurting their immune system before they get to the feedlot.”

This could be as easy as saving your best pasture for weaning calves, she says. Depending on feed prices, you could also take advantage of a creep-feeding program ahead of weaning, to get the calves accustomed to eating highly nutritious feed. 

Many people think weaned calves need to gain 2 to 2.5 pounds a day, but this can be expensive if you are buying feed. “When you factor in the value of that gain, you may be losing money,” Gill says. 

If you have to wean calves in a corral rather than on pasture, get them used to eating the new feed before you wean them so it’s not an abrupt change. “You need to do this while they are still on the cow,” he says.

Calves will try the feed more readily when they are not stressed, and they sample new feed if they see Mama eating it. “This is learned behavior. Here in Texas, a lot of producers use cottonseed meal pellets or cubes as a supplement during weaning. We might feed some in the summer on pasture, just to get calves used to eating it with their mothers. Then they will eat it from Day 1 when you wean,” Gill says. 

“If they aren’t eating, it stresses their immune system. Usually if calves will eat, and maintain or gain weight through the first seven to 10 days, they won’t get sick. It’s when they won’t eat and won’t drink that they get into trouble,” he adds.  

The important thing when weaning is the transitional period before you stress the calves again. “There has been a lot of research regarding the best length of time before you ship them. That’s where the Vac45 program came into being, looking at a 45-day window. Some producers try to cut that down to 21 or 30 days, based on how much feed they have for those calves, but that may not work as well,” says Gill.


Gill says it’s best to give calves vaccinations before weaning, so they have some immunity to the most common viral diseases before they are stressed. “In our research, the best thing we found was what we developed many years ago in our Ranch to Rail program, where the Vac45 protocols evolved. It worked best when ranchers were able to gather cattle a month before weaning and give calves the viral and clostridial shots, and then boost those a week after weaning. It’s not a good idea to do anything with the calves right at weaning, because you want that to be a stress-free day,” he says.

Another method that works well is to vaccinate calves at branding, with a viral component as well as clostridial vaccination. You don’t get much immune response at that time, but it creates a memory response.

“Then when the immune system sees that antigen again at weaning time, that second shot produces enhanced immune response. You can get the calves weaned and give them that booster within 10 days,” says Gill.

“The third-best thing, if you didn’t get any vaccinations into calves at branding, is to vaccinate at weaning and then booster 14 to 21 days later — though I think it’s best to wait at least seven to 10 days before you put the first round into them, so you aren’t stressing them so much on weaning day,” Gill says.

Ask your veterinarian whether you need Pasteurella or Histophilus somni, and which clostridial vaccines to use. “Those gram-negative vaccines are pretty stressful, so you don’t want to stack too many at the same time. Often, we add pasteurella to a vaccine protocol way too late. It should probably be given 90 days before the cattle are stressed or exposed, but most protocols today require it to be a component of the Vac45 verification program,” Gill says.

Smith Thomas is a rancher who writes from Salmon, Idaho.

2016 benchmarks for beef cows

Beef benchmarking

Each year, North Dakota State University publishes a yearly beef cow economic and production business summary. This is part of North Dakota’s Farm Business Management Program (ND-FBM). operated through North Dakota’s Statewide educational system.

The University of Minnesota, in turn, pools data from 11 states and provides user-designed, internet-accessible data summaries for each participating state as well as an 11-state summary. Ranchers have computer access to the University of Minnesota’s extensive farm and ranch database.

Do a Google search for FINBIN and you can access this database for any one of these 11 states or an aggregate summary of all 11 states. FINBIN is a very powerful farm and ranch management tool and should be used by ranchers in conducting a benchmark analysis of their own beef cow business.

Annually, I publish a detailed analysis of North Dakota’s beef cow enterprise summary taken from North Dakota’s annual report. This discussion uses the 2016 averages of the 64 participating North Dakota herds. Each table has space for you to add actual numbers for your herd as a way to benchmark your beef cow herd against these published Northern Plains averages.

Ranchers are busy, busy people — often doing all the ranch labor, leaving only a limited amount of time for ranch management. So, how do you decide where to focus your limited management time? Benchmarking can help you focus your limited management time on the critical areas of your beef cow business.

Categories where your herd beats the study herds’ averages point to the strengths of your beef cow herd. Capitalize on these strengths! Categories where the published averages beat your herd’s numbers identify potential areas to focus your management attention on, with the goal of improving overall profitability of the herd.

Let’s start this benchmarking discussion by looking at some critical average herd performance data. Figure 1 presents the averages of these Northern Plains 64 study herds. Most of these ranchers farm as well as running an average of 177 cows per herd. Livestock sales, on average, were about 39% as large as crop sales.

The National Integrated Resource Management standards are used to calculate the reproductive measures of the beef cow herds presented in Figure 1. The two most critical production numbers, in my opinion, are pregnancy percentage (95.0%) and weaning percentage (87.4%).

The base of these two percentages is the number of females exposed to the bulls at turnout time in the previous year’s breeding season. Many ranchers tend to base these percentages on the number of cows in the Dec. 31 inventory — after they have culled the open cows. Do not base these percentages on cow numbers at the end of the year.

What is highly correlated to profit is this: Of all the females exposed at bull turnout time (mature cows and virgin heifers), what percent of these females weaned a calf in the fall of the following year?

In this database, 87.4% of females exposed to the bulls in 2015 weaned a calf in 2016. My past IRM data have shown this is a critical number with respect to beef cow profits.

A lot can happen in a herd from breeding until weaning the next year. There can be pregnancy loss, females dying, females culled for other reasons, calves born dead and live-born calves dying. What is critical from a profit standpoint is the percent of the cows weaning a live calf. The more, the better.

Another number that I concentrate on is calf death loss, which averages 5% in this annual summary. If your number is above that, you have to ask why. What caused the problem?

If the answer is a snowstorm at calving time, there is not much you can do about that. If the answer is sickness, then you need to try and prevent it from happening next year.

The final and most important production number with respect to profitability is pounds weaned per female exposed the year before. Almost all aspects of production performance are summarized in that number. I like to see this number at 500 or higher. This database has 499 pounds weaned per female exposed.

Figure 2 presents the economic summary of these benchmark herds. I’ll present the summary numbers in this Market Adviser, and next month I will present the details behind this economic summary so that you know exactly how I calculated each benchmark number. Space does not permit the detail in this month’s article.

Gross income per cow is made up of beef calves sold, beef calves transferred out and cull sales. The total gross income per cow in this 2016 database averaged $894. Feed costs are broken down into pasture costs at $140 per cow for all summer costs and $209 per cow for winter costs, for a total annual feed cost of $349 per cow.

Depending on your location, your summer and winter feed costs will undoubtedly be quite different, but your annual feed costs should be somewhat comparable.

Vet and medicine costs averaged $21 per cow. This could vary from region to region. The farther north you are, I suspect, the lower this number. The 11-state average for 185 herds in the FINBIN database for 2016 was $25.14.

Total livestock costs listed in Figure 2 averaged $89 per cow. Total direct costs (feed, vet and medicine, and livestock costs) averaged $458 per cow. The beef cow herd’s share of overhead costs came to $115 per cow.

Replacement costs for replacement heifers transferred in, or females purchased and replacement bulls, totaled $261 per cow. The breakdown for the benchmark herds is $116.25 per cow for purchased animals, including bull purchases, and $144.32 per cow for animals transferred in. Total of all economic costs averaged $834 per cow.

Cull sales (cows and bulls) averaged $141 per cow and are part of gross income. 

In summary, gross income per cow averaged $894 per cow. Total economic costs averaged $834 per cow, leaving an earned economic net return (before labor and management) of $60 per cow. So, how did your herd perform in 2016?

Let’s compare the $60 average earned economic net return in 2016 with the last 23 years with discussion emphasis on the last 10 years (Figure 3).

The earned net income (before labor and management) has averaged $180 per cow over the last 10 years. The annual range has been from a −$14 in 2009 to a +$660 in 2014.

As this is being written, I am projecting 2017 to return to approximately the 2015 level — but I think we are still in the expansion phase of the cattle cycle, which suggests that we are still going to have to deal with a larger U.S. calf crop for a few more years in the current cattle cycle. I strongly encourage each of you to benchmark your way through the rest of this cattle cycle.

Preg-test your cows early & earn more

Rancher checking cowherd

“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.”


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After 64 years, Rev. Keil is retiring from the pulpit. He's also retiring from giving the Friday evening invocation at the Grand Forks' River Cities Speedway on Friday evenings. He's given the prayer before the race for seven years.

Farm Progress America, July 31, 2017

Max Armstrong shares background on the current work to gather information about the 2017 crop and how it is progress. The final information will be released in a USDA report on August. 10.

Farm Progress America is a daily look at key issues in agriculture. It is produced and presented by Max Armstrong, veteran farm broadcaster and host of This Week in Agribusiness.

Photo: Willie Vogt/Farm Progress