One of the more rewarding jobs I’m asked to undertake for producers is to select their replacement females. The rewards for this job come in various ways. Firstly it’s great to be trusted to make decisions that will impact on the long-term direction of a herd. Secondly, I find a great deal of satisfaction in participating in a process that has a direct impact on the financial returns from a breeding herd, not to mention influencing the overall productivity of that herd.
I’m often surprised in the way many producers approach selection. I often encounter herds that have only one criteria for selection, which is that cows must have a calf every year. Now there’s certainly nothing wrong with this criteria. But that’s only one area to consider.
So what should you consider during selection?
Structural soundness is fundamental in a herd. The ability of your cattle to walk and forage directly impacts on their individual performance and on your herd’s productivity. Cattle that have poor leg structure suffer from arthritis; are prone to lameness and find walking distances to access feed and water more difficult, especially as they get older.
The flow on effect of this is a reduction in the ability of individual cows to meet their feed demands for maintenance, growth and production. Cows with a lower condition score at calving take longer to start cycling again. A late cycle puts the cow further behind in calving, and this cascades to a point where she may have only cycled once in the 12 week joining period.
Her ability to deliver a calf unassisted is also impacted on by structure. The angle between her pins and hips has a direct influence on calving ease, as does the width between her pins.
Teat size and udder structure are also important in the structural assessment process. Achieving the genetic potential of your calves to gain weight to weaning is greatly dependent on the cows milk supply. Poor udder attachment, badly sized teats are common causes of everything from poor suckling to mastitis and reduced milk production.
Maturity pattern should be a focus in selection. In the back of your mind you need to consider if the cattle you are producing will have the right level of fatness for your target markets. But you also need to think about the cows and their energy demands. Larger framed, later maturity cows require more feed, and if you don’t have the feed to met those demands you will either have lower fertility levels, or you will have to run less cows.
It’s equally important to have an even group of cows. Evenness will help you manage feed supply to your cows more effectively. You will find the process of managing joining and calving more efficient than if you are trying to juggle the different needs of big and little cows.
Lets not forget that having a range of cow sizes will also mean a range of weaner sizes. If you are trying to manage for a drought, not to mention hit a specific turn off time or weight, various sized weaners will cause you no end of headaches.
The Other Traits
Temperament is one of the most important traits to select for. I really don’t like cranky cows, flighty cows, or those cows you just can’t trust! Selecting out the quieter, less nervous cattle will improve your handling experiences, for both you and your cattle!
And never forget that quiet cattle produce a quieter calf. This in turn that is directly related to their eventual eating quality.
I also use the time to select for those cattle that have the traits that add value to your turn off. I try and select cattle that have superior growth for age (within the maturity pattern suitable for the area), and for cattle that display a higher degree of muscularity.
Can you put a price on it?
Its actually not that hard to put a price on the benefits of improved selection. Not so long ago I ran a comparison on a clients herd. I looked at the impact selection had when we changed operations to keep cows in the herd for 2 more years, and to tighten calving from 16 weeks to 12 weeks.
Focusing on an early maturity pattern did help us tighten joining. We also managed nutrition more effectively during joining so that the cows were on a rising plane of nutrition.
These changes impacted a number of areas across the herd. It changed the number of replacement heifers we were keeping, changed the age structure slightly in the cow herd, and changed the value of the weaners being sold. The value story was interesting as this was the influence of having a greater number of cattle at a similar age and weight, rather than smaller numbers across a couple of different weight categories.
When we I ran the numbers I found we had actually increased the gross margin by 19%! That was a huge lift in productivity and profitability, and we really hadn’t done anything other than change some selection criteria.
Now this was a pretty big shift, and I reckon not everyone will get a huge lift. Although there are gains to be made trough the sale of more surplus females, tightened joining, improved time management and so on.
Ultimately I reckon it proves that focusing on these traits is financially worth doing. And as someone who enjoys doing this work, I’ll always be happy to come and do it for breeders. Its one job I know more than pays for itself!
I reckon this time of the year is possibly the most frenetic for beef cattle breeders. Spring calving is well underway, and there are plenty of people talking to me about the ups and downs of calving. At the same time the bull selling season in northern NSW and southern Qld is dominating the minds of many producers. Meanwhile, in the back of everyones mind is the question about what the spring will be like and if we can finally move towards a good season and a strong market.
I've been giving this time of year some thought as I travel to meet clients and attend bull sales in the north.
A couple of things stand out for me. Firstly it seems like 80% of the people I speak to are looking for bulls specifically to join to heifers. These "heifer bulls" are being sought to address, in many cases, a difficult year for calving heifers.
If you are experiencing difficulty in calving your heifers, don't just blame the bull!
Birth weight is a major cause of calving difficulty. And the bull does contribute to the potential weight of the calf. However, don't neglect the other factors in calving difficulty! You should also consider how well grown your heifers are; what nutritional program they have been managed under and how has your management of this group been undertaken generally.
If you really want to get on top of a problem, you need to know whats going on in that part of your herd.
The second thing I've noticed a lot at recent sales is many producers have not really thought a lot about the structural soundness of the cows within their breeding herd.
It seems that people are confident in looking at bulls and saying they want to make sure of feet or legs or eyes.
But when I ask them whats the general level of structural soundness in their herds, on more than one occasion I've been told the producer just doesn't know.
I have to say it makes selecting a bull for long term herd improvement, a real challenge. Unless you know where your herd sits for all attributes, such as growth to meet market specs, for fatness, for size, for temperament and for structure, you can't actually make the most informed decision regarding the influence a new bull may make in your breeding herd.
At best, its an informed hunch! With EBVs and a physical assessment of a bull you can decide if he will generally improve your herd.
But; (and there is always a but) is the bull likely to improve the structural soundness of the herd? Does he help lift your herds muscle score? Will he help correct the level of cow hocked animals or introduce legs that are possibly too straight. In other words will the bull make existing problems better or worse?
If you haven't spent time considering your cow herd and working out whats going on in the herd, I reckon you've made your bull purchasing decisions just a little bit harder.
So while I know it's a busy time right now, try and put aside a bit of time to look objectively at your cows. Start assessing them and make some decisions about each female and her long or short term future in the herd. If you do this now, come joining time, you may actually be able to have a select group to join with the bull and this could be the group that really does achieve the lift in production you wanted!
If you need a hand or a second opinion to help you be more objective about your cows, then I'm always happy to come out and help you work out whats going on.
After all this will help me next year when you start looking for a bull to lift your herd performance that little bit higher!
In northern NSW calving season is just starting. In fact just this week I was visiting a farm just in time to see a calf being born. Its always a great pleasure to see a calf safely delivered and for mum and the calf to be doing well.
Managing the calving season is one of the high priority tasks for beef producers. After all, the number of calves that can be safely born & then grow on to meet sale weights or joining weight does directly impact on your enterprise's profitability.
With this in mind, I thought I might share a few of my top tips for managing calving.
Tip 1: Put your calving heifers in a paddock that is easy to access when you are checking your heifers. Ideally have a paddock set aside close to the yards. There may be times when you need to asset your cows so being close to the yards will reduce stress on your animal and on yourself!
Tip 2: Checking your cattle is important and you need to do it regularly. But don't be too intrusive! When cows give birth, they often find a quiet spot. Just watch and observe and only get as close as you need to.
Tip 3: Keep a box of long vet gloves in your vehicle or if you have a store at the yards keep them there. Personal hygiene is important, and you don't need to get birthing fluids, blood or other matter on your skin if you do have to assist your cows. It prevents any cuts you have on your skin becoming infected. It's also good hygiene for your cows! While we are on that tip, keep a drum of water a towel and some soap or disinfectant in the kit as well.
Tip 4: If you do have to assist your cows and you use mechanical aids, go easy!! Work with the cow and her contractions. Ease the calf with the cow. Don't just pull the calf out! You could do some real damage to the calf and the cow if you are not gentle.
Tip 5: Put your newly calved cows into a different paddock with access to good quality feed. Remember these cows have a huge increase in energy demand with the calf at foot. You have to match that demand with feed.
Tip 6: Keep a record of your cows and how they handled calving. Did you have to assist the cow? Does she care for the cow and milk well? These are important records to help you select and manage fertility in your herd.
Tip 7: If you are going to measure and record birth weights, do it safely! Cows are very protective mums. Don't assume that a quiet cow will be quiet when you approach or interfere with her calf!!
Weigh the calf in a cradle or on scales in a way that won't stress the calf unduly. Then leave it alone once you are done.
Ideally weighing little calves is a two person job, just so that one person can keep an eye on mum! I remember during the cross breeding trials conducted by NSW DPI in Grafton, some cows would actually jump onto the back of the ute just to keep an eye on their calf! Don't take safety or your cows for granted!
Tip for next year: If you are trying to calve heifers and cows over a fairly long period, you will probably start to wish calving would hurry up and end! Theres no doubt your heifers need a fair bit of attention.
My tip for next year, try joining your heifers to calve earlier than the cow mob. This means joining them earlier and that way you can give them the attention they need at calving. If they calve earlier it will give them a few more weeks to get over calving and that way you can more successfully rejoin them for the following year. This will also let you put them onto a targeted management program to ensure they are well fed and can care for their calves properly.
Calving can be a tough time with cold starts and plenty of time in the paddock. At this time of the year a little preparation can help you manage this season more effectively for you and your cows.
The last two weeks have seen extraordinary weather experienced across NSW. Some of the worst bush fires in recent NSW history have burnt across the Hunter and Blue Mountains. Yet down south in Southern NSW, frosts have damaged grain crops and slowed pasture growth. Throughout the last two weeks, significant rain hasn't fallen, and combined with hot dry winds and high day time temperatures have pushed drought conditions further across the state.
In my last post I encouraged producers to be implementing drought planning. The keys to the plan include a realistic assessment of your situation and some defined trigger pints and dates where you will take action. Following that post I was able to help several producers in making the first steps of a drought plan, and to set some clear dates for action. The result was not only a good plan, but relieved producers who could focus on their way ahead.
With all the driving around I've done in the last two weeks, I've noticed many cows and calves. Most of these cows are doing it pretty tough. Their body condition is generally in the range of Fat Score 2. This has serious implications for the calf, the cow and for next years production.
Cows in a Fat Score 2 condition will be using their body reserves to produce milk for their calf. In the long term this isn't sustainable and milk production and subsequent calf growth will suffer.
For the cow, falling body weight will impact on her ability to return to oestrus and this will impact on the fertility levels of the herd next year.
In most situations I've seen, the big limitation is the lack of pasture feed. Some producers are attempting to provide supplements, but the choices they are making are actually not working!
Lactating cows have a huge demand for energy. If the pasture feed is lacking in quantity, as it is in most places during a drought, adding a protein supplement, such as a block or dry lick will not achieve any lift in cow performance. Right now most cows need a boost in energy. This means any choice for feeding is going to be based on energy dense feeds such as grain.
Some people try to keep their cows going using options such as hay. Hay is a good feed, but often won't have the same energy levels as grain, and therefore you have to feed more hay to achieve the same result, which can become very expensive.
Lactating cows have huge demands for energy and feed. Feeding lactating cows can be expensive and time consuming. In drought situations it can often be much more efficient and effective to consider early weaning the calves from the cows.
This does two things. First it reduces the amount of feed you need to provide to the cows, as they are now dry cows with lower energy demands. Secondly, you can manage the calves and keep them growing as a group, which means they will be similar weights and ages which is important for future marketing.
If you are considering early warning, take some time to plan how you will go about doing it. The calves will need to kept in a secure yard, which is well watered and drained. They will need to be feed a good quality feed and managed properly. The NSW DP has really useful fact sheet to help in the planning and practice of early weaning. (Feeding Calves in Drought)
I reckon many producers need to be including early weaning into their drought management planning.
Once the calves are taken care of, attention can be given to ensuring cows will go through joining successfully.
Dry cows are a much easier group to manage. They can be pregnancy tested earlier, and its also easier to reduce numbers from the dry cow mobs if that is part of your drought plan.
If you are unsure how to go about drought management of your cows, putting a drought plan together or early weaning, don't hesitate to get in touch with me for some advice.
Last weekend I was working with a producer, pregnancy testing this years maiden heifers, as well as a large group of first calf heifers. Unfortunately a large number of the first calf heifers were found to be not in calf.
First calf heifers, especially those which calve as 2 year olds, can be very difficult to rejoin successfully, and often have lower pregnancy rates when compared against older cows.
There are a couple of reasons for this. Cattle in a Fat Score (FS) range of 3 - 4 should take around 50 days to commence cycling after calving. Younger cows, may take up to 20 days more than this. If the Fat Score of those cattle is lower than FS 3, the time taken to return to oestrus is increased.
In a controlled joining program, usually a 12 week program, these delays often see many females failing to go into calf.
I reckon that the first calf heifers are the group of cattle that deserve the most love and attention in a breeding herd.
Close attention during calving needs to be complemented with access to good quality nutrition. If pasture quality and quantity are limited, then supplementary feeding is essential.
I also reckon its a good idea to keep the first calf heifers in a separate group to the older cows from calving to joining. This way you can manage their needs more closely and get them ready for joining more efficiently.
Pregnancy testing is a key tool in managing your breeding females. Finding the non pregnant females early can allow you a chance to either remove those females from the operation, or make some decisions about rejoining.
If you do decide to sell those non pregnant females, consider ways which allows you to capture a higher value.
After the pregnancy testing on the weekend, I was able to sit down with the producer and we worked out a plan which covered both managing the non pregnant females and some strategies for the pregnant cows and this years group of maiden heifers. I was really happy to be able to help with that planning and I definitely reckon its one of the most rewarding parts of my business.
If you do want to discuss some options or put a plan in place for your first calf heifers, feel free to get in touch with me and we can set something in place.
In Northern NSW, calving is just starting in a lot of beef herds. I really love seeing new calves appearing in paddocks as I drive about visiting clients.
In terms of major events on the cattle calendar, I reckon calving is probably the biggest event. Its important to manage this event well, as a good calving season will impact on your short and longer term productivity and profitability.
You should aim to put your cows into paddocks where you can supervise them during calving.
Ideally you should be able to access yards easily if you do need to provide assistance.
Your calving paddocks need to have good shelter, access to water and most importantly sufficient pasture.
Many people don't realise how much extra energy their cows require once a calf is born. Once that calf arrives, the energy requirements of the cow will effectively double. If the amount of available pasture, or the quality of the pasture is insufficient, your cow will lose weight and she may also produce less milk which will impact on the growth of your calf.
In the longer term, weight loss post calving will impact on the fertility levels of your herd. Cows which are in low fat scores at calving, eg Fat Score 2, will take much longer to return to oestrus. In practical terms, this will see less cows going into calf at joining time, or a longer and more spread out joining which then impacts on next years calving.
Calving is a challenge particularly for first calf heifers, especially if they are calving as 2 year olds. This group of females requires a lot more attention, both during the calving period, and immediately post calving.
I reckon managing feed for your newly calved cows is the most important task. Using an appropriate supplement can help your cows use paddock feed more efficiently and meet some of the energy requirements placed on them as lactating cows.
Ensuring your cow nutrition is correct will help ensure your longer term goals for a fertile productive herd can be met more easily.
The critical time of calving is the during calving and immediately and the months leading up to joining. Well supervised, well fed cows will be much better suited to joining, while their calves will be better grown and more robust which is important for your future enterprise goals.
I've been spending a bit of time talking with producers about the best ways to manage their calving season. So if you'd like to get in touch, I can help you develop a plan to manage your newly calved cows.
- Are you feeding enough?
- Have you really considered what you are feeding?
- Dont rush to judge during this drought
- Critical decisions for your cows
- Some drought feeding tips
- Using fat scores on farm
- What’s the point of recording that?
- How do you prioritise risk?
- Water has no nutritional value!
- Profit - is it a numbers game?
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