Where can your herd be more efficient? Northern States Beef Conference addresses efficiency and more

Madison Hokanson
for Tri-State Livestock News

“A proactive response is more productive than a reactive response.”

This quote from Jim Flower, a cow/calf producer from Benson, Minnesota, sums up the message heard from a presentation on increasing productivity and efficiency in beef operations at the 2018 Northern States Beef Conference at the Watertown Event Center in Watertown, South Dakota.

Eric Mousel, a cow/calf educator with the University of Minnesota Extension out of Grand Rapids, Minnesota at the North Central Research Station, has been studying profit trends in the beef industry for more than 10 years. His studies began with South Dakota State University and have transferred to the U of M for the past six years he’s been there.

“Why are all of these commercial guys having trouble being consistently profitable over long periods of time?” is the question Mousel has been asking and working to answer through his research. “Even with high market years in 2013-2015, about 70 percent of the industry is at break even or in the red in terms of profitability over a 10-year period.”

“There’s not a one size fits all because it’s different for everybody. Don’t be afraid to enlist the help from your vet, an extension employee or whoever your support system is to pinpoint what some of those potential problems may be.” Jim Flower, cow/calf producer from Benson, Minn.

The four main pieces of business that impact profitability include capital investment, production efficiency, the market values and your cost of production, said Mousel. They are each intertwined, and you can’t effectively change one without it affecting another.

Mousel went on to share that though cost of production is the factor that actually tends to have little variability, it seems to be the topic that is discussed and focused on the most by producers. This includes things like feed costs, veterinary bills, repairs, and supplies.

Mousel believes that many cattle producers inherently feel more comfortable discussing ways to impact their feed costs than considering major management changes such as calving dates, calving locations, health protocols, pasture rotations, etc.

“It’s easy to talk about feed costs, but what do you say about improving calving percentage and weaning percentage? It’s not as easy to talk about because there is no single solution – every operation has a different set-up and faces unique challenges.”

Capital Investments

Rather than focusing on cost of production, it is important to think about where your capital investments sit and how efficient your production practices are, particularly from birth through weaning.

“We have seen a $130 increase per cow in capital investment over the past six years,” said Mousel during his presentation. “Even though our operating costs have stayed pretty stagnant, overall costs have still gone way up because of capital investments.”

It’s important to realize that capital investment is an important component of a business, but as Craig Bieber, owner and operator of Bieber Red Angus in Leola, South Dakota, said, “Be sure to make investments that will pay off in some way in your operation.”

Some examples of investments Bieber has made over the years have included the use of DNA technology for their heifers to see what traits that female is strong in, and a double alley to maximize efficiency and time for handling in his operation. His largest piece of advice was to invest in leading technology and innovation instead of bleeding because it’s important to let most of the kinks get worked out before making a large investment like that.

Production Efficiency

Production efficiency is the other component that Mousel stressed highly during his presentation.

“What really sticks out is that production efficiency is horrible in the cow/calf deal right now,” said Mousel. “We can get 97-98 percent of our cows bred and then get 96-97 percent of those calves on the ground, but when we go to wean those calves in the fall, it drops down to somewhere around 85 percent. How do we lose 11 percent of our production through calving and weaning?”

Whether it’s disease, genetics, or environmental conditions for the year, each plays a large role in the calves lost throughout the season. Looking at Mousel’s research, if an operation can increase its weaning by 5 percent, there is the potential for a 300 percent increase to its bottom line.

Producers should also keep genetics in mind. He fears that some important maternal traits like mothering ability are being lost in the race for improved production, better marbling, etc. Careful culling and a good relationship with your seedstock provider (to learn about the mothering capabilities of a bull’s dam) could help improve these maternal traits in a commercial herd.

Jim Flower decided to make a change several years ago when he started calving closer to April instead of during the middle of winter in February. This has allowed him to minimize the harsh weather conditions his newborn calves have had to deal with.

“As the season changes and weather makes a difference, we have to continue to change how we do things,” said Flower. They also invested in hoop barns several years ago which are deep bedded in straw for calving. That allows air movement to keep diseases from growing while still allowing for a warm space for calving.

At the end of the day, it’s about differentiating wants from needs and keeping meticulous records to make educated decisions about your specific operation. Records are what allow you to understand if your underlying problem is about your genetics, management practices, or something completely different. From there, you can work to be proactive in your solutions.

“If there’s one thing you can do walking out of this conference, it is to think about how you can do a better job leading up to calving, getting through calving, and after calving in keeping your calves alive,” Mousel concluded in his presentation. Because there is no single solution for ranchers to increase production or efficiency, Mousel hopes producers will stay in close contact with their veterinarians and other experts, as well as their peers to bounce ideas around. “Its not a one size fits all because it’s different for everybody. Don’t be afraid to enlist help from your support system to pinpoint what some of those potential problems may be.”

A joint effort between South Dakota State University, North Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota, the 2018 Northern States Beef Conference was the third one they’ve put on, with the first being back in 2013. The 2018 Northern States Beef Conference took place from Tuesday, December 11 through Thursday, December 13, and each day was filled with speakers and presenters about the beef industry.

“This conference focuses on the cow/calf and the feedlot side of the industry and how they can work together to get the best ultimate product that consumers want,” said Julie Walker, Professor and Beef Extension Specialist at SDSU. “The goal of this conference is to look at the beef industry with a more wholistic approach.”