This week I was tagged on Facebook under a comment regarding data collection. The comment referred to a practice of recording the ratio of weaning weight against dam weight. This is a comparison often used in the U.S.
I have to be honest; my initial reaction was to be a bit surprised. Not by being asked if it was a method I used or recommended. Rather, my surprise stemmed from this data itself.
I’m not saying this data isn’t useful. For some people I’m sure it could be a useful piece of data. However, for me, and for most of my clients, its not the first thing I’d be looking at when I’m analyzing a business.
In previous blogs I’ve talked about focusing on the important traits within a herd, and on the importance of using data to drive innovation. I’m still not sure that many producers are doing either of these as well as they could be.
I’m a very strong believer that making the most of your resources and investments to date is the first thing you should focus on. Too often I see producers chasing fads, pursuing new options without ever realizing the potential of their current program.
The only way you will ever realize your programs potential is to measure it and compare it over time. The measurements have to be relevant! There has to be a point in recording it.
The point of recording is to establish where you are, and then to set some plans in place to maintain or improve your position. So the whole point of recording is to focus on the resource you have!
My second strong belief is you should always grab the big wins first! To me, weaning ratio against mature cow weight isn’t a big win for most people. Its something you may choose to focus on when you’ve ticked all the big-ticket items off.
So what are those big ticket items? I know I’ve written about them before. However for a breeding program they are:
- Conception rate (number of cows pregnant / number joined x 100)
- Weaning rate (number of calves weaned / number joined x 100)
There is an important point to this. Weaning rate isn’t the number of calves weaned from the total number of pregnant cows. It’s against your total breeders joined.
There is an additional big ticket item, which is calving percentage (number of calves / number joined X 100). Again it has to be measured against total joinings.
The point of this? Well it helps you identify fertility rate in your herd. It assists you to clarify calving losses and weaning losses against your total numbers.
I’ve come across many issues that happen post preg testing. These range from mid term abortion losses to dystocia and predation. Having data helped focus problem solving onto those issues that were costing the program in a big way.
My additional big ticket items? Well I like to know the numbers of cows calving at the start, middle and end of a set calving period. If the numbers indicate a trend towards the middle and end, that highlights a real risk that cows are going into calf late. If it isn’t addressed, those cows run a risk of falling out of a 12 month calving interval.
In turn that lets me ask about weaning weights and perhaps then I may start looking at ratios. But by then I reckon we have gotten the big ticket items sorted, and now we can start selecting on individual performance.
So my question to you is what’s the point of the data you’re collecting? Is it able to be used to fix the big-ticket items? Can you use it to maximize the resources and investments you have? If it can’t, then maybe you need to re-evaluate your collection. And if you think you have the big tickets sorted, now you might be ready to fine-tune your program further with more targeted individual data.
And if you’re not really sure and you want to have a fresh set of eyes have a look, maybe its time to give me a call and get the independent assessment your business needs!
Do you consider yourself an efficient beef producer? I guess that is a challenging question for a lot of producers. Having worked with hundreds of producers for almost 25 years, I have to say there is a huge range between producers’ levels of efficiency and profitability.
I’m also certain that there some people thinking about that question, and wondering what do I mean by efficient? One of the best definitions of efficiency I’ve come across is “a system achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense”.
In beef production terms I guess the word efficiency relates to the levels of production achieved compared to how much input goes into the system. This could be measured against production per cow, kilograms of beef per hectare and the cost to produce one kilogram of beef.
In early January 2017, Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) released the Global Benchmarking Results for Beef producers. Its an excellent report, and has given me lots to think about. I’ve also seen it reported on in several of the rural media outlets. Now depending which site you read, this report is both full of good news for Australian beef producers, and at the same time has plenty of bad news.
The good news is that Australian beef production is considered to be an efficient beef producing nation with a low cost of production. The downside? Well Australia is seen as having a moderate to low level of calf weaning weight and lower cow herd productivity. We are also seen as achieving moderate to high weight gains in southern systems and low gains in the northern extensive systems.
I reckon that it’s easy to just take these reports and look only at the good news. Yes we are an efficient producer of beef. However take some time to read through the report. There is a big variation in key indicators of efficiency. A good example is weaning rates (calves per 100 cows). In general southern systems record weaning rates of around 90% and northern systems much lower at 50 -80%.
Having said that, not all southern systems are running herds with their weaning rates. The key measure is calves weaned per 100 cows. I know plenty of herds with much lower rates. There are herds with weaning rates that range from 78% to 88%. So somewhere along the line 12 to 22 cows in every hundred are not rearing a calf to weaning.
If that is the case what happened to the calf? Did the cow conceive? Did she lose the calf before calving, at calving or somewhere between calving and weaning? Increasing calves born per cow makes a dramatic difference to the overall profitability of any breeding business, so its worth looking at your records to see how well you are doing.
I was also interested to look at the measure of total live weight produced per cow. According to the report, the global range is between 100 - 480kgs produced per cow per year. The Australian systems fall in the middle, with ranges from 210 – 340kg. How many kilograms produced per cow per year is the result of may factors, from the genetics you use, the maturity pattern of your cows, the nutritional system you provide and the fertility of your herd.
I reckon these reports are incredibly valuable if you are prepared to look beyond the good news headlines! I’ve just picked two areas that producers can look at in their own systems and decide if they are really as efficient as they could be.
Don’t just accept the blanket statement that Australian beef producers are some of the most efficient in the world. Spend the time to think about your own system. If you can push yourself to get maximum return for the efforts you are putting in, you might be surprised how much more productive and profitable your business can be.
If you don’t know where to start looking, then why not give me a call? I’m happy to have a look at what you’re doing. I reckon we could come up with a few easy ways for you to become a more efficient beef producer.
This time of year my mailbox fills up with catalogues for bull sales being held across the north west of NSW and southern Queensland. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad to be on the mailing list for so many different operations. Its important I know what bulls are being offered and its important I'm able to know these things if I'm going to do my job properly advising clients of what sire decisions they should consider.
One thing that stands out for me, is the number of bulls available each year, and the overwhelming amount of information that is now available for producers. Its impressive and exciting that we can make decisions about the genetic potential of a bull and not be wholly reliant on visual observation and pedigree.
With the availability of EBVs, we now have much more information regarding the genetic potential of a bull to improve herd performance in numerous traits. That information can be vital in making progress in your herd. Especially when you remember that genetic improvement is both long term and cumulative in your herd.
However, in practical terms how do you work your way through a catalogue, let alone several catalogues that may arrive on your desk? I thought I might spend a bit of time offering a few suggestions to make sure you use your catalogue to its full potential, and the bull sale vendors get a return on their investment of producing the catalogues in the first place!
The starting point, as obvious as it seems, is to know what breed you are actually interested in looking at for your next sire! In my case I have a lot of breeds to be across. But for most producers there is really only a need to worry about bulls from the breeds they use in their herds. This is important because you shouldn't be attempting to compare the EBVs of breeds against each other! While the traits recorded may be the same, the EBVs that are published have different values.
When you choose a sire, you should be looking for a sire that will contribute the genetics to move your herd in a specific direction. So ask yourself what is it you want to achieve with your herd? Do you want to improve your growth rate to turn steers off earlier? Do you need more fatness? How big do you want your cows to be in your herd, and so what is the mature size potential of a bull daughters? There are plenty of questions to ask, and you need to have the answers in mind.
With these answers, you can start to look at a catalogue! The front of the catalogues contain valuable information about the sale, and buying conditions. They also contain the information on the breed EBVs. This includes breed average as well as in the breed leaders across the traits. This is designed to help you know if a bull is likely to offer you a genetic advantage in the traits you may be looking for.
The following pages contain information such as reference sires, and this often helps you determine what pedigrees and what breeding objectives the bulk breeder has in mind.
The majority of the catalogue is then made up of information on each bull on offer. Each description includes the Lot Number, Registered Name, Pedigree and Breedplan information (EBVs). Most entries also contain the breeders comments or thoughts.
There are different considerations here. If you are following pedigrees and using specific sire lines in your herd, the pedigree is important information.
Most people in a commercial operation don't need to spend a lot of time on pedigree. Instead look at the EBVs.
The EBVs you should look at are the ones that are important to your breeding direction! If for example you want to improve yield and eye muscle area, these are the EBVs to look at! If it helps, highlight the bulls that fall within your desired range. Often this will be the bulls that have a high accuracy of EBV data and are above breed average in that trait.
If the bulls don't have the genetic potential for your herd direction, then don't spend time worrying about them!
The reality is, most sale offerings of bulls will only have a small proportion of bulls suitable for the direction of your herd. Its not to say there are bulls that are no good. It means not every bull will suit every operation. So spend time looking for the right one. Remember a bulls influence can last up to three generations, so choosing the right one is important.
There is another way to find the sires in a catalogue. The electronic version is to use the BreedObject website. BredeObject allows you to search the catalogues in your breed, and rank animals on either $ Index values, or around the EBVs that you have identified as important in your herd direction.
Basically BreeObject lets you automatically search the bulls being offered and identified them. When you have a result, you can highlight those bulls in the catalogue and take that list of bulls to the sale.
The most important part of the process is to not worry about all the other bulls on offer at a particular sale!
Trust your list and your identified set of animals. These are the ones you know will be genetically most suited to your herd direction and production goals.
When you get to the sale, take the time to look at the bus you have identified. This is your chance to look critically at each bull and assess if his physical attributes are best suited to your herd.
If you have any doubts or you can clearly see the bull doesn't suit your cow herd, then yo can move to the next bull on your list. By the end of the process you should have a purchase list of bulls in order, and it should be a list you can have a lot of confidence in, based on the genetic information available and on your physical assessment!
Its true this approach is perhaps a little more structured than many people are used to. But if you want to make the best decision and purchase a bull to take your program forwards, then I reckon you should do a bit of preparation! If you're not sure where to start, then feel free to give me a call and get some advice. When you do put the work in, you will find your catalogues to be a key stone in the preparation and on the day you buy your next sire.
Do you have a benchmark for production? How do your management practices sit with best practice or against similar operations? These are the types of questions I'm often asked by producers. And these are questions not just being asked by my clients, I often get them in general discussions at field days, the saleyards, pretty much anywhere where a few producers might be chatting.
So how do you compare against others? Does it even matter? Well I guess what matters is if you are operating a financial and environmentally sustainable enterprise. If you are doing that I reckon it doesn't really matter what everyone else is doing!
Having said that, for most producers I know, there is always scope to improve their management or their production systems in some way. Benchmarks can be a really useful tool to make those improvements.
When I mentioned this to someone this week, their response was how are benchmarks useful? I reckon one of the best responses is that to create a benchmark, you have to make the time to consider what is being measured and actually respond with some real data.
The very fact that real data is required actually causes producers to start considering what is actually happening in their programs. It is very easy to overlook parts of the enterprise - the little things if you like, that on their own don't seem that important. But when you accumulate a few of those things, they can have a massive effect on the overall business.
I reckon comparing your performance against a benchmark gives you a chance to objectively measure where your program is heading. The way this needs to be done however is not to think that a once only assessment will mean very much.
The first time you compare yourself to a benchmark you are really only comparing yourself to a single point in time. You might be on par with that point, you could be above it or below it. Whichever way you compare, the first time is really just the starting point.
To get some value, and make useful decisions, you need to do some comparisons over a couple of years. This will show if there is a trend up or down.
Having said that, if there are some things that you identify as being well below the benchmark, its a chance to get in and try address those issues as quickly as you can!
The other question many producers ask sits around what do you benchmark yourself against? There are plenty of people throwing around benchmarks and production levels. How current are those levels, how realistic are they? These are all things to consider.
Personally I am a little unsure of what the realistic measures are for the producers I work with. And there seems to be a fair bit of variation in what people are doing. So this July I decided to conduct a benchmarking survey of RaynerAg clients and producers who use RaynerAg for advice. I have to say, its not a short survey! But if I'm going to collect data that I can use to help producers and have some meaningful benchmarks, well it has to cover a few things.
So far I have had some useful responses. I am getting much better picture of some general practices that we can all improve and a few useful trends on fertility that might provide some easy but effective strategies for breeders. Keep watching this space over the next few months and I'll share some of the findings as I complete the analysis.
If you haven't completed the survey and you'd like to be part of developing these benchmarks, please feel free to click on the link and complete the survey. I reckon we are all going to get a few useful results from the exercise!
I'm often asked by producers for my ideas on ways to increase the income they receive for their cattle. Getting a better return is something most people want from their cattle. And along with the desire to make a better return, there is always some new idea or marketing strategy that someone wants to do because they have heard it will make them more money!
Sadly I don't think there is one simple scheme, breed or idea that will guarantee you will make more money! In my experience the way to make money in cattle production is through a combination of work and focus. And while most people work hard, the focus is often the area that is most lacking.
So what should you be focussing on? The first thing is your market. Australian beef markets are well defined. If you are selling cattle to a feedlot or to an abattoir, both of these destinations can clearly describe what type of cattle they want to buy and they can say how much they are prepared to pay for those cattle.
Despite these specifications being readily available, many people don't appreciate what a powerful tool they are in helping you make money.
Specifications provide you with target weights and fatness. This helps you determine suitable growth paths on farm for your animals. It means you can use your feed reserves and make grazing decisions that will direct your animals to a market end point. This is the focus that many people need to have but often don't.
Sadly I often see people who put cattle into a market and those animals are overweight or over fat. This creates a few problems. Firstly the animals are out of specification, and so will be valued at a discounted level. So instead of an optimum price per kilogram, it is sometime much lower than the animals deserve.
Secondly it takes your feed resources, and therefore adds to the cost of producing those animals, to get them to the weight you sold them. So not only are they worth less per kilogram, but you also wasted feed getting them to that point.
I reckon a lot of people don't notice they are losing money. The extra weight, even though it has a lower value, will mask the lower each animal has made. So that producers often miss the fact their animals didn't receive the optimum price.
Focussing on a market specification, either for feedlots of for processing, helps set realistic work goals. Decisions about grazing management, feeding programs and other tactical decisions become easier if you are working towards an end point.
More importantly at a strategic level you can start examining your genetics and your herd. Are your bulls helping you achieve the correct growth rates and level of fatness required by your target market? Do you need to be selecting a different type of cow in the breeding herd?
Are your pastures capable of supporting your growth program?
These are important decisions that can help you target your financial resources more effectively in the long term. While in the short term you can focus on hitting a market specification that will return you the greatest return.
I recently worked with a client who was aiming for a specification for a feedlot. The optimum price was for steers that were 400 - 449kg. Over 450kg the price difference was 5c/kg lower. Initially this didn't seem to bad, however we started to look at the feed resources we had to use. The extra cost in this instance to get steers over 450kg, effectively worked out to be the equivalent of a 25c/kg discount! We started to look at how we were growing those steers, and by aiming for an earlier turn off at the optimum weight we were able to save around $70/hd on the steers that normally would have been in the heavy category. To wrap this story up in past years about 10 - 15 steers would always have been too heavy, so we saved around $1000 by making a few changes and staying more focused on the plan!
There is no doubt we had to work a little bit harder and change a few management practices. However I reckon using resources more efficiently, and targeting a specification more closely, has helped realise better returns on farm.
I reckon working with producers to be more focussed and efficient in their work programs has helped gain a better return for the clients I've worked with.
Assessing your financial performance is not just important, its vital for your business. But its not the only thing you need to be assessing. Every farm is made up of systems that contribute to the level of production and the financial returns your system producers.
So how do you assess if your enterprise is running to its full potential?
When you are making your assessment, how objective are you?
The four steers in this photograph are all the same age, and were all from the same property when this photograph was taken. The variation between the four of these steers is obvious in the picture.
One of the key roles of the RaynerAg business is to provide producers with an objective view of their program. Helping reduce the variation in a program is one practical approach. But its not just about working through the cow herd and taking out the extremes!
So if you're part of the large group of Australian farmers that haven't had an objective look at your business in a while, why don't you get in touch? I'll be happy to help you see the variation and work out ways to fix it.
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