Rayner Reckons

Feb 21

What do I look for in cattle?

Posted on Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Recently I judged a local shows commercial and stud cattle sections.  I really enjoyed the chance to look at a range of cattle and to provide some comments about the animals I assessed. However on reading through the report of my judging in one of the major rural papers, I’m not sure my comments were heard as clearly as I thought I had made them!

If you believe the report, my judging was influenced as much by the recent hot, dry summer as anything else.  This had apparently caused my to lean more towards Bos Indicus cattle than British breeds.  Well if only it was that simple!

I can confidently say that weather doesn’t influence my judging or indeed change the criteria have in my mind for cattle!  Climate and environment or the other hand, do play a role.  I think a lot about suitability of a breed to an environment.  But its not the first thing I think of!

I assess cattle for three key attributes.  The first is that they must be structurally sound.  When I talk about structure I am referring to the skeletal system of the animal; as well as other physical traits. 

So first off, I look at the way the animal walks.  If an animal can place its feet in line with each other, with no over stepping or under stepping by the hind feet, then I start to feel the structure of the legs, hips, and shoulders are acceptable.  I then like to look at how the animal stands, and I have another look at the angel of the shoulders, and the way it stands with its hind feet and legs in a normal standing position.

Its then that I have a chance to decide if the animal is standing too low on its hind feet, or two high.  Both of these are a result of legs that are either curved or too straight, and its something I may not have noticed when I was watching it walk.  I also want to see if the hocks are bowed in outwards or inwards. 

What I really want to determine is how sound is the animals feet legs and shoulders?  Can it walk a long distance each day to graze and water, and will it be able to carry the weight of its body without causing it to have sore joints that could lead to swelling, lameness or arthritis. 

I reckon these traits are important for the longevity of animals within your herd and contribute directly to your overall profitability.  If you have cows that can conceive, calve and wean a calf every year that is the first part of profit.  The second is to have cows that can do this up to 10 years old. 

When I run the figures on herd profits, those that have cows that are fertile and staying in the herd because they can get about, look after themselves and a calf have a higher profit margin.  That’s often because they are selling a few more surplus heifers, and the heifers they do retain for breeding are the select group of genetically and physically better heifers.

As part of my structural assessment I look closely at teats and the udder to make sure that the quarters are all even and the teats are well shaped to support a calf sucking. I also want to see that all four teats can be used and not left un-milked as this can contribute to mastitis, which is pretty painful for a cow and will result in lower productivity.

When I’m happy with structure I look for the traits that add to productivity and profitability. We are breeding cattle to produce red meat, so I will always select for muscle.  I look at the shape of the animals, the width depth and length of each animal to determine its overall muscle volume.  You can have muscle in females, and it wont reduce your fertility.  So I select for it.

I also like to think about maturity pattern and frame size.  Large frame later maturity females will naturally require more feed to achieve their body requirements for maintenance, let alone for reproduction and growth.  Remember you can only grow so much pasture or put out so many supplements. 

And if you want your animals to do well, you need to feed them properly.  Large frame later maturity animals may mean you run less numbers in your herd, and so may impact on the total number of kilograms of beef you produce each year. 

Whenever I assess cattle, temperament is my other key trait.  I like cattle to have a quiet temperament.  Aggressive or overly excitable cattle are both dangerous and less productive; due to the impact temperament has on eating quality.

Ideally, my preferred animals are those that are structurally sound, well grown, well-muscled females.  I prefer them to be moderate maturity and quiet temperament.  

Ultimately I prefer them to suit the country and environment and to suit their target markets in both size and breed.  

If I can help my clients have a breeding herd like that, I’m very happy.  And when I’m judging I’ll always try and select those females first, regardless of the weather on the day!

Sep 05

Whats going on in your cow herd?

Posted on Friday, September 05, 2014

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!

Jul 09

Top tips to manage calving time

Posted on Wednesday, July 09, 2014

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.

Feb 11

What identifies a cow as a core breeder?

Posted on Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Reducing cow numbers is a fundamental strategy in many producers drought management plans.  People talk about getting down to their core breeders, but what makes a cow part of the core breeding group?

In an ideal world, I reckon every cow in your herd should be considered a core breeder!  However not all cows in a herd are the same, and not all of the cows you own will have the traits or production qualities you should seek to retain.

So where do you start?  I reckon the first selection process is to identify the cows which are not in calf.  

Preg testing your cows, particularly in drought at least allows you to identify animals which need to go.  

Preg testing shouldn't be just about identifying the non pregnant females. Yes its a good start in identifying the first to go.  But if you are looking to identify a core group of females to keep, you should use your preg test results to inform that selection.

With preg testing you should seek to identify the early, mid and late pregnant females.  Early pregnant females are most likely the more fertile females and this is a trait producers should select for.  

Ultra sound preg testing is a very efficient way of identifying pregnancy and the stage of pregnancy.  The producers I have worked with have been able to start making some plans around the fertility levels in their herds.

While pregnancy status is vital to identifying productive females, its not the only thing to consider in your search for a core breeder!  

In each cows history, how maternal has she actually been?  Has she successfully raised a calf each year?  How heavy have those calves been at weaning?  Fertility is one thing, but its only completed if the cow can raise the calf through to weaning.  

Fertility and maternal traits are key attributes of a core breeding female.  However there are other characteristics which producers should include as they choose which females to retain.

What maturity pattern have you identified as the optimum for your environment? Are there cows which are too early or too late maturing?  If they don't fall into the optimum then they might not be as close to the core group as other cows.

What are the production traits of the females you are assessing?  Which have the better growth traits, the best muscularity, and which are the more structurally sound animals? These are traits which are ideal to retain in a herd and can ad to a profitable enterprise as you rebuild after the drought.

How old are your cows?  If they are towards the end of their productive life, they may not be essential as core breeders?  What traits do they have in regards to health status?  

Finally what are the other important traits to you?  I reckon you can never underestimate traits such as temperament!  

We know temperament is highly heritable, and has a major influence on eating quality as well as your safety in the yards! 

Are there any other traits you need to retain in your herd?  If there are, then ask yourself are these specific only to your herd, or can you replace those traits with other cows later on.  

You have to be honest with yourself!  If you have average maturity cows with average muscle scores, average growth and are just cows, then you can be pretty confident you can replace those with similar or better cows down the track.

If it is coming down to choosing cows to retain as core breeders, then any cows which fail to meet any of these traits shouldn't be considered as core breeders.  

In a drought such as this, the core breeding herd should be the most fertile, productive cows with the best structure, temperament, age, maturity pattern and productive traits which will allow you to plan a rebuilding program around. 

Oct 29

How are your cows holding up?

Posted on Tuesday, October 29, 2013

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.

Sep 09

How big do your cows need to be?

Posted on Monday, September 09, 2013

How big are your cows?  That's a question I ask producers in almost every conversation.  Not because I think bigger is better! Rather knowing the size of cows helps me to develop recommendations from feeding through to stocking rates and options for markets.

How much a cow needs to eat each day is driven by her weight.  Saying this often seems to be quite simple and not at all surprising!  I reckon its so simple, people often don't think about it properly, and more importantly, they don't appreciate how important this simple fact is for cow fertility, beef production and to enterprise profitability.

To show how intake changes, I thought I would refer to the intake chart used in the ProGraze courses.  

Herbage Mass (2600 kg DM/ha)                           Pasture Digestibility 60%

Predicted daily Intake (kg /DM)

Dry Cow (Fat Score 3)

Early Lactation – 2 months (Fat Score 3)

















Source: ProGraze Manual

I like this table for a few reasons.  The first is that it shows how intake increases as cow weights increase. What it also shows is how much more feed cows require once they start lactating.  In the case of a 500kg cow, she will need an extra 3.8kg of feed each day when she calves.  

I guess 3.8kg may not sound like much, but over 100 cows, thats an extra 380kg/DM a day, or 2,660kg/DM a week.  

If cows don't get that extra feed at lactation, they will lose weight.  In some cases using body reserves for lactation can be an efficient option.  However, if cows are in Fat Score 2 or below, they won't have sufficient body fat to really make up the difference.  As a result their return to oestrus will be delayed - meaning a longer calving interval. And they will produce less milk, meaning you will have lighter and less valuable calves.

The profit driver on any beef enterprise is kilograms of beef produced per hectare.  The key to this in breeding herds is to have a cow produce a live calf every 12 months.  

Based on the intake chart above, we can do some quick comparisons between the requirements of 500 and 600 kg cows (based on a mob of 100 head).

The daily intake for 100hd of 500kg cows would be 690kg/DM.  

This compares to the intake of 100hd of 600kg cows. They would need 840kg/DM a day.

The difference between the two is 150kg/DM.  In practical terms this could mean either you could run around 20 more 500kg cows or more likely you would be probably running a smaller herd of 600kg cows.  Less cows will mean less calves and therefore less profits.  

If you did try to run the same number of larger cows you would have to be prepared to provide supplementary feeds to meet their daily requirements if your pastures were lacking.  Doing this will also erode the profits of the enterprise.  However without feed, your cows will be less fertile and productive.

As with any of these questions, the size of your cows should be balanced against your environment and your markets.  If you have the pastures and the market options for moderate size cows, then you should be using those resources to improve your productivity.  But just remember, bigger cows don't always give you the most flexibility when the season gets touch or your market specifications change.

Its a simple thing, but knowing how much your cows weigh lets you know how much they need to eat and to be productive.  Know this, and you can start to manage your herd to be productive and profitable. 

If you want some advice or to look over your cows, don't hesitate to get in touch. Often a second opinion can make the evaluation process a lot clearer for you.


Aug 13

Don't waste your hay

Posted on Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Late winter can be the coldest time of the year in Australia.  The weather has been really variable in the last few weeks.  Last Thursday I was in Armidale and it was sleeting, while this week we've had temperatures in the low 20's!  The BOM has some great tools to use for farmers looking at the season ahead.  Its definitely worth looking at the BOM website http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/ahead/temps_ahead.shtml so you can plan ahead for the next few weeks.

Cold, windy weather often occurs over the next few months.  In these conditions, hay becomes an important option for farmers seeking to look after their stock more effectively.  Hay offers several advantages at this time of the year.  

Firstly good quality hay should have reasonable levels of energy (ME / DM). This is handy when pastures are short and green, as it can help meet the energy requirements of lactating cows.  Secondly hay is rumen friendly, so it can be fed without requiring an introductory feeding period (which you have to do with grain).  Most importantly for cold, wet and windy weather, as cows digest hay, the rumen is working a little bit harder and so generates more body heat.

While hay is a great option for these reasons, it also has another advantage.  Hay is fairly easy to handle and to feed out.  Cattle don't take long to learn to eat hay, and so it's a pretty simple feeding option.

Just because hay is simple and effective, doesn't mean you can be casual about how you feed it to your cows!

Good hay isn't cheap. Yet some people seem to feed hay in such a way that up to 35% of hay gets wasted.  I reckon if you did your sums correctly, you wouldn't be happy about wasting this much money!

So how do you avoid wasting hay? There are a few things you can do. Firstly hay should be fed in ring feeders or racks.  Using a feeder can reduce waste from 35% down to around 5%.  Secondly you should have more than one feeder. This gives all of your cows a chance to access the hay.

Putting too much hay out will also result in increased losses.  Research from the University of Missouri (http://extension.missouri.edu/p/G4570) looked at how much hay is wasted by putting out lose on the ground vs using hay racks.  The study also looked at what happened when hay was fed every day vs every 7 days.  

When large round or square bales where fed in racks or rings, the waste was around 4.9%.  This compared to a rate of 12.3% when fed across the ground. These losses were just on 1 days worth of hay.

For 7 days supply, the waste level in rings went up to 5.4%. But for 7 days worth of hay spread across the ground, the waste was 43%.  

Sadly its not unusual to see a round bale dropped in a paddock, or rolled out across the ground.  This method of feeding results in waste from trampling and by contamination from dung and urine.  

I reckon its a huge waste of good feed, and a really unnecessary economic waste for any enterprise. 

Investing in some hay racks, or ring feeders will pay off very quickly once you work out just how much hay you can save.

The other handy thing about investing in hay racks or rings is they will come in handy when weaning comes around or to use with some hay to settle your new bulls into the yards on their first night in their new home.

Don't forget if you want some advice on feeding your cows, or anything to help your beef business become more efficient to give me a call.  I'd be very keen to share a few ideas and see how we can achieve your goals more easily.

Aug 05

How much feed do your cows need?

Posted on Monday, August 05, 2013

I really enjoy being out on farms at this time of the year.  In northern NSW and parts of southern Queensland there are plenty of little calves in paddocks.  I love seeing calves grouped up in nurseries, watched over by an older cow.  

When you see this, you know that the cows are off grazing, or possibly watering, and they will be back to let their calves get some milk shortly.

Grazing time is vital for lactating cows.  When a calf is born, a cows daily energy intake doubles.  

Its vital that a cow gets adequate energy from her diet in order to produce enough milk for her new calf.  

Spring calving can be a challenging time for cows, as the supply of feed can be quite limited.  

In many cases the extra energy cows need will come from a combination of daily feed intake and metabolising body fat.

I reckon its really hard to stop cows losing weight after calving.  Most pastures, particularly semi improved or native pastures won't contain the energy or the protein lactating cows need.  Using body fat will help address the deficit and ensure milk supply to the calf.  

The trouble with using body reserves is the flow on effect on the cows returning to oestrus for joining in late spring or early summer.   A big loss in body reserves will delay the cow returning to oestrus, and this can impact on your herd fertility levels.

So just how much feed do your lactating cows need?  This will depend on the live weight of your cows. Bigger cows need more energy for their own maintenance as well as for their milk production requirements.

To give you a basic idea, a 440 kg lactating cow requires a daily intake of 100 MJ ME and 700g of Crude Protein.

Heavier cows will need more than this!

Knowing what your cows need is just part of the challenge.  You need to know what your pastures can provide.  

For example a pasture comprised of Phalaris & Clover should have around 10 MJ/Kg & about 140g CP/Kg.  

If that 440kg cow ate 10kg of this pasture daily, her requirements should be met, and you wouldn't see too much wight loss, or issues with fertility later on.

This is all very good in theory.  In practice the quality of feed at winter, the amount of feed and the intake of your cows will vary.  I reckon the best thing you can do is recognise your cows need a lot of energy and be prepared to closely monitor your cows & their feed intake and be prepared to intervene with some supplements if you think the pastures are not providing all your cows require.  Intervention with supplements or moving to better pastures may prevent more costly losses later on with lower herd fertility.

Don't forget, if you have any questions after reading this, or about how to manage your cows during this time, you can always contact me for some advice.


Jul 03

Looking after your calving cows

Posted on Wednesday, July 03, 2013

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.


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