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Managing data on the ranch

Maintaining cattle records can pay off at the farm level and beyond

For some beef producers, maintaining accurate cattle records is a time-consuming chore, but for others it is the tool they depend on to run a productive and profitable operation. The method and complexity of cattle records is as varied as the farm operators who use the information. But ag economist Manglai Ma’s graduate research found that producers who maintain records are more profitable.

Kathy Larson, an economics research associate with the College of Agriculture and Bioresources at the University of Saskatchewan, has spent much of her career sifting through cow-calf records and survey data.

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“There is a lot of potential for producers to understand the records that they keep and how it impacts their profitability,” she said.

Production records have been a feature of leading edge producers, Larson added, and analyzing herd records as well as tying them to farm financials to identify break-even prices is one way producers can set themselves apart from others.

Larson listed typical categories producers track including cow and calf ID, calf birth date, birth weight, weaning weight produced per cow, and the cow’s calving interval.

“If you want to excel or leverage yourself, you need to do more than that,” she added, suggesting producers also look at their calving distribution, assess the pounds of calf weaned per female exposed, determine pregnancies per cow exposed, and calculate profit per cow, per acre, or per enterprise.

Proper records are a marketing tool and essential for participation in programs such as Verified Beef Production Plus, the Canadian Beef Sustainability Acceleration Pilot, and the Beef Info Exchange System (BIXS).

“Records open doors for branding programs,” said Larson. Premiums are starting to flow to producers who have taken the time to market their beef through these channels, she added.

One of the top on-farm tips Larson has for producers is to record weights. “It is connected to so many things. Weight dictates how you’re paid, how much pour-on you use on an animal, how much feed you need to put out, how you determine correct dosage of antibiotics,” Larson noted.

Saskatchewan beef producer Mark Hoimyr agrees weight is important when it comes to cattle records. “We weigh calves in the fall, and weigh and body condition score cows when we preg-check them,” he explained. Hoimyr added that he likes knowing the weights on cows for winter feeding, as it helps them keep their cow size moderate.

Hoimyr operates Box H Farm, a multigenerational ranch, with his wife Laura, children Jeremy and Anna, and his parents Lyle and Judy. The ranch, which was awarded the 2017 provincial environmental stewardship award (TESA), comprises 5,200 acres of native prairie and tame grassland near Gladmar, Sask. Maintaining complete herd records has become an essential tool for the Hoimyr family, helping them make decisions on individual animals as well as their herd.

“What used to be in our calving book is now a spreadsheet we developed on Apple Numbers and can access with an iPad or iPhone anywhere,” Hoimyr explained.

He used to record on paper then transfer information onto a computer but found that wasn’t efficient. “I prefer to quickly enter it in on the iPad as we do things and I’ll do calving records on the fly,” Hoimyr said.

The Hoimyrs record cow and calf identification, CCIA tag numbers, gender, colour, birth weight, vaccinations, treatments and health observations. They also use a scoring system for udders as well as any animals that need help sucking or require other assistance.

“I use that as much as anything,” said Hoimyr, who said that if he’s had to intervene with a particular animal too often, they will be the first to be culled.

“Some of the culling decisions shouldn’t be made while you’re sorting because you don’t have enough information in front of you,” Hoimyr said. “You can’t rely only on records but having records available in combination with the visual appraisal allows you to make a more informed decision.”

Beef producer Shelby Vuylsteke agreed that accurate records help her family make effective management decisions in addition to other benefits. Vuylsteke helps her parents Peter and Elizabeth Froland on the family ranch where they raise 750 commercial cow-calf pairs near Amisk, Alta. Vuylsteke has been using the herd software program CattleMax for the past three years.

“It’s been a learning curve but the technical service they provide is pretty spot on, and they get back to me within two hours,” she said. There is a cost to the program but in their minds, the records provide value to their ranch.

Vuylsteke uses the online-based program to input data such as cow and calf identification, CCIA tag numbers, breed, calf birth date, gender, colour, and which cycle the cows calve in. They also make comments about animals that need assistance for suckling or calf delivery so they can determine which cows to cull. On their farm, they find it easier to write data in a pocket calving book and then input into the computer later.

Her family has always made a point of keeping careful records. “My dad used to keep detailed paper records of each cow and now that we have electronic records available on our phone, it’s simple because I can access that animal’s information in the pasture or chute-side,” she said. “It’s handy especially if they lose an identification tag, we can tap in their CCIA number and throw in their replacement tag.”

Vuylsteke added they feel it’s important to maintain a cow’s personal history. Vuylsteke has seen a marketing benefit as well. “Where our cattle records do come into play is when we sell breeding stock and I can share and transfer information to customers. They are very receptive to that.”

The CattleMax program can also track pasture movements and this helps Vuylsteke and her family monitor what type of production they are getting. “We try to be proactive with grazing and do more intensive grazing, and break and reseed grass so this is a good tool for that,” she explained.

The Hoimyrs record their grazing through a program called Pasture Map. “You can select different fields and drop in water troughs, add cross fencing,” Hoimyr explained. Perimeter fences are permanent and you can adjust cross fences and add layers to the map to determine how many days the field has been rested. Hoimyr added that when working cattle as a family, it is nice to be able to share info with each other. Plus everyone has a better perspective if they have a visual of the field.

Maintaining detailed production records comes with its own set of challenges though. “You have to make it into a project, you can’t just do it in five minutes,” Vuylsteke said.

Communication is also very important. “If one person does something with an animal but doesn’t tell the other and it doesn’t get recorded, that can be a challenge,” said Vuylsteke. She would like to do more analysis on a herd level as she becomes more familiar with the program. The farm has also identified that recording weights in the future would be useful to tie everything together.

Hoimyr said he wishes it were easier to make valuable herd comparisons. “If my record-keeping fails at anything, it’s that it can be cumbersome to stack things for analysis.”

He also said it can be tough to find motivation to maintain detailed records but it seems wrong to stop recording information knowing the information will be valuable, especially as it builds. “So much of record-keeping isn’t really useful until a year or two later,” Hoimyr said.

While both families have encountered a few challenges, they are quick to point out that their record-keeping efforts are key in helping them identify areas of improvement, recognize successes, and provide a framework for the practices they are implementing on their farms.

“If you don’t have any information about your herd, it’s going to be hard to be progressive and modern as you move ahead,” Vuylsteke said.


Finding a record-keeping program

Many producers develop their own record-keeping spreadsheet using software they already have (i.e. Excel or Numbers). However, there are many online programs that are also popular such as:

Tara Mulhern Davidson is a writer and a beef and forage consultant. She ranches with her family in southwest Saskatchewan.

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Tara Mulhern Davidson is a rancher, writer, and agrologist from Ponteix, Sask.

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