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Does preg-checking cows pay?

Perfection is not possible in the cattle business, but excellence can be achieved

It’s a “forever” debate.

On one side of the scrum are the naysayers who claim preg-checking is sacrilege foisted on the industry by unscrupulous, profiteering veterinarians. They maintain that open cows in the spring are worth more, can be wintered profitably, they manage what calf crop is on the ground just fine, and that veterinary input isn’t necessary.

On the other side of the debate are those who look at preg-checking as an important time of year for running cows through the chute, taking inventory on open and pregnant females, assessing bull power through the breeding season, monitoring the physical attributes of brood cows including body condition score, plus the expected distribution of calf crop that will help guide heifer selection next year.

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Then, in between: the cold economist types, the ones who use calculators and algorithms in decision making, taking into account feed costs, projected cull cow prices — now and down the road. The years vary, but people sleep better when they go to bed after shutting down the computers and reading Canfax updates.

All seem to work for individuals. There are no perfect answers. The fact that management systems don’t incorporate the opportunity to determine the status of brood cows as they come off pasture and head toward winter, then include the information to make better decisions, attributes to why the beef industry leaves 20 to 25 per cent of potential income on the table every year. And has done so for 50 years. In the mix are things like the reluctance to use vaccines, better mineral mixes, getting rid of horns, poor biosecurity practices and oversight in livestock transportation. Not doing simple things stalls progress.

The major economic benefit of preg-checking is the cost saving of wintering open cows. However, it has been noted that preg-checking is not always worthwhile, as the increased revenue due to higher prices in the spring and the additional weights put on in the winter could more than offset winter feeding costs. The economics of preg-checking depends on the cull cow market price, the management system employed by the producer, feed and overhead costs, and veterinary costs (Economics of Preg-checking: 2017 Update – Canfax).

Using the BCRC’s Economics of Pregnancy Testing Beef Cattle Model, the potential economic gain or loss can be estimated for the following three options:

  • Preg-checking and culling cows in the fall.
  • Preg-checking and feeding open cows separately.
  • Not preg-checking and feeding cows over winter under different overwintering management systems and price scenarios. Basic cowherd information and fall cull cow prices are needed for the calculation.

Over the past five years, the seasonal decline had ranged from 16 per cent to 33 per cent, with 2014 being the only exception as prices traded counter-seasonally higher in the fall. Cow prices have increased from November to March in nine out of the past 10 years (2007-16), with the exception being 2015. The percentage increase ranged from 14 to 55 per cent with an average of 27 per cent. Based on the long-term price seasonality and the above assumptions, the model generally projects economic losses for the “preg-check and cull in the fall” option compared to the “no-preg check and cull in spring” option.

According to Wes Ishmael in a University of Nebraska article, ‘Preg-Test Cows Early And Earn More,’ there’s more to early preg-checking than the obvious savings on the grocery bill.

“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. 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. “Non-pregnant heifers and cows as well as cull bred cows can provide as much as 20 per cent of the gross income to a cow-calf operation on an annual basis.”

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), less than one third of producers exploit the technology.

According to the USDA’s 2007-2008 National Animal Health Monitoring System’s (NAHMS) Beef Study, the nine top reasons for culling females include:

  1. Age or bad teeth: 55.7 per cent.
  2. Pregnancy status (open or aborted): 41.8 per cent.
  3. Temperament: 16.6 per cent.
  4. Other reproductive problem: 13.4 per cent.
  5. Economics (drought, herd reduction, market conditions): 10.9 per cent.
  6. Producing poor calves: 10.7 per cent.
  7. Physical unsoundness: 9.6 per cent.
  8. Udder problem: 9.2 per cent.
  9. Bad eyes: 7.1 per cent.

Pregnancy status is not always the top reason to cull a cow. Some producers allow older, productive cows to stay for an extra year, even if production is slipping a bit, versus keeping an open cow. The older pregnant cow will produce a calf, while the open cow gets free groceries for a year and produces nothing in return. In many herds, old age is a bonus. It is the kind of animal most producers need in herds. Endurance contributes to the gene pool. Longevity is the best measure of success because it encompasses fertility; soundness of body, feet, eyes, and udder; mothering ability; disposition; calving ease; disease and parasite resistance and foraging ability. Droughts and other hardships often result in older productive cows being culled rather than producers being tougher on younger cows, especially those that fail to maintain pregnancy or fail to keep body condition, are unsound, have bad dispositions or are poor-doing calves.

Staging pregnancy, even by trimester, helps identify:

  • Early calving cows — the herd all-stars — and the preferred pool for selection of herd replacements.
  • Effects of body condition scores during the last gestation and existing body scores.
  • An overview of bull power through the breeding season.
  • Potential disease issues e.g. trichomoniasis, campylobacter.
  • A year-to-year overview of a herd’s reproductive momentum.
  • An overview of upcoming calving season.
  • Early evaluation of heifer replacement choices.

In the cattle business, perfection is not possible, but excellence can be achieved. Assessment of breeding herds as they come off pasture, including their pregnancy status, is a path toward excellence.

About the author

Columnist

Dr. Ron Clarke prepares this column on behalf of the Western Canadian Association of Bovine Practitioners. Suggestions for future articles can be sent to Canadian Cattlemen ([email protected]) or WCABP ([email protected]).

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