Cow-Calf Commentary for Iowa Cattleman Magazine

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By Erika Lundy, extension beef specialist, and Beth Reynolds, extension program specialist

July 2020

The Value of Early Preg Checks
In a recent Iowa State extension project, Iowa cattlemen indicated spending $306 per cow, on average, for stored feeds during the winter months.  Assuming a 4-month feeding period with one of those months being early lactation, that's $2.55/cow/day and does not include any costs associated with grazing corn stalk residue.  Despite the high annual expense of maintaining and feeding a beef cow, only approximately 25% of U.S. beef producers perform annual pregnancy checks (NAHMS, 2008).

Hopefully, you recognize that feed is easily the largest cost for your beef enterprise, and you understand that those associated costs of over wintering an open or late-bred cow is not recovered without income from a calf. Because of this, it’s hard to stress the value of pregnancy (preg) checking females and making decisions about the cows that fall out of the desired breeding season. Regardless of if you sell right away, feed cows to market as a white fat cull cow, or sell as bred females, knowing if the cow is bred is a critical first step.

The most convenient time for producers to preg check tends to be at weaning, primarily due to the convenience that calves are sorted off and cows are likely close to the working facility. While this is not a bad management strategy, preg checking your herd earlier in the summer can pay dividends, especially if feed resources are limited and finances are tight. Blood test technologies have made it easier to detect pregnancy as early as 21 days, compared to ultrasound the traditional palpation technique which can be done as early as 35 - 45 days depending on the experience of the veterinarian or technician. Of course, all three methods have their own pros and cons, but the key is utilizing early detection.

Consider the seasonal pattern for cull cow prices. Historically, November and December are the seasonal lows in cull cattle prices. Because the majority of U.S. cow herds are spring calving, this makes sense as producers often cull after weaning and preg checking.  Therefore, early pregnancy diagnosis, before weaning, is critical to allow marketing of open or late-bred cows before the market is flooded with cull cows and prices are reduced. Seasonal highs often happen in August - September and again February - April, emphasizing the value of early detection.

Keeping price seasonality in mind, and available feed resources and facilities, there may be opportunities to add value to open or late-bred females by feeding them. Generally, adequate weight and conversion from yellow to white fat can be attained within 50 - 70 days depending on cow size, age, and body condition score at pregnancy diagnosis. For cows carrying subpar condition, feed conversions can be very efficient at the beginning of the feeding period but quickly rise to above 10:1 after approximately 60 days on feed. Cows with severe structural or health issues, or injuries that may be exacerbated with added body weight should not be considered for feeding and sold as soon as possible. Considering all of this, there may be profit opportunities by preg checking in late July - early August, early weaning (weaning prior to the calf reaching 180 days of age) females who are open or late-bred, placing those females on feed for approximately 45 - 60 days, and still get them marketed during a seasonal high.

In addition to open cows, bred females that don’t necessarily fit within your desired calving window may have an opportunity to be sold through another market avenue, including as bred females.  Consider cow age, disposition, and body condition when marketing bred females.   Younger females who may have failed to breed in the desired window for reasons outside of their control, including insufficient body weight at the start of the breeding season or bull infertility, may be good candidates for starting or rolling over into a fall-calving herd, assuming they can be managed separately from the spring herd.  Holding these females for a few extra months offers an opportunity to regain body weight and increase the likelihood of early conception in the fall breeding season.  While it may be costly in the short run, cows of good age and condition may return higher yields as a fall-calving cow, who are more likely to produce a calf that will hit seasonal highs for feeder calf markets, compared to being sold for pound price this fall.

Although there currently are not a lot of hay sales reported, current hay prices are above normal, so making an inventory of existing forage and feed resources will help dictate whether to market open or late-bred females now or feed them for a different market.  Likewise, older, poor structured, or bad attitude females are naturally good candidates to cull as soon as possible if feed inventory is tight.  If feed resources are adequate, adding weight to these females may increase salvage value.  However, minimizing feed waste is critical to controlling costs.

Marketing breeding stock accounts for roughly 20% of income for cow-calf operations.  Prioritize pulling the bulls to tighten up your breeding season and be sure to schedule cow herd pregnancy checks early this year.  Take advantage of opportunities to effectively market open or late-bred females earlier in the year to avoid marketing these females at seasonal market lows.