I think pregnancy testing is one of the most powerful insights you can have into your breeding herd. I’ve been offering pregnancy testing for the past four years. In that time I’ve come to look at pregnancy testing as not just a service that I can offer. I’ve come to value and appreciate the opportunity testing offers to evaluate a lot of management strategies in each herd I visit.
So why preg test in the first place?
I do have producers who tell me they don’t need to preg test. The reasons vary. Some people won’t because the think its too expensive. Others because they feel their fertility levels are spot on and pregnancy testing wont do much to change their fertility. I’ve also had other people tell me they are yet to be convinced in the need to test.
So lets think about the reason why you would test. At the very basic level, pregnancy testing allows you to determine the number of calves you expect to be born each year. The profit of any beef herd is driven by the kilograms of beef produced per hectare. Having live calves on the ground to grow and sell directly influences profit.
Unlike a sheep flock where the ewe will grow a fleece that can at the least offset, and hopefully exceed the costs associated with her management and maintenance each year, you cant shear a cow! You can’t cover her costs in any other way unless you sell her or she produces a calf to grow and sell.
In my mind the first reason to test is to make plans based on the number of calves you expect. It also lets you assess the cows that are not contributing to the productivity and profitability of the business. The ones that are not pregnant and will consume feed that really should be offered to the productive females first!
So what about these excuses not to test? The first is that it’s too expensive. I know my testing rates per head are less than a cup of coffee. For that price you receive information that allows you to plan the year ahead, and to save a lot of feed on non-productive females.
I actually calculated a price to feed non-pregnant females recently using some oats and hay. Based on the NSW DPI Drought Feed Calculator, I worked out the cost of feeding a cow and calf. The results were really interesting.
Basically a 550kg cow with a calf at foot would eat 9.68kg of Dry matter a day. Based on the cost of grain and hay, this would cost you $2.16 / day or $65.00 a month. So in my head, spending less than $4.00 would allow you to save the cost of feeding a non-productive female.
More tellingly, you could choose to feed that non-productive female and sell her into the market at a slightly higher value. Either way, I reckon it’s still pretty cheap to test and a better way of making a decision than waiting until calving and seeing how many calves are on the ground.
What about the people who think their fertility is spot on?
I saw an interesting slide yesterday from another consultant. It said, 80% of farmers think they are in the top 20% for production. That may be true. Having tested a lot of cows now, I know that many people overestimate their fertility levels.
In my mind, fertility isn’t just cows in calf. It’s also about knowing when your cows went into calf.
Productive and profitable cows are cows that can repeatedly conceive, calve and rear a calf every 12 months. In practical terms this can be hard to achieve. With a cow’s pregnancy lasting for 282 days, it takes a cow in average condition around 40 days to return to oestrus. So there are really only about 2 heat cycles left in the year to go back in calf.
You can select for females that are more fertile. Basically by selecting the ones that go into calf earlier in the joining cycle. This not only means you hit the target of a calf every 12 months. It also means that her calves are born earlier, and will be heavier at weaning and at sale time. It also means your replacement females will be heavier at joining and more likely to go into calf and successfully rejoin next time around.
I reckon the opportunity to make these decisions and evaluate each cow on its fertility is incredibly powerful. Personally I love the opportunity to collect this data and talk at the crush about the options for management of dry cows, which heifers to select as replacements, and to discuss herd health strategies. In fact the chance to do this in the yards as the cows come through shapes and focuses many management decisions for the remainder of the year.
For me, the next two months will see me in yards all over NSW testing cows and planning to use the results to make some more money. If you are still tying to decide if you should test, all I can say is that one test is much cheaper and more powerful than a cup of coffee!!
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.
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.
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