Fall cow-calf management
With a drought that has blanketed much of the U.S., chances are ranchers are seeing their cows a little run down this fall. With less grass and hotter days, this summer was tough on many herds. With pairs being rounded up in to be worked, now’s a good time to manage the herd.
Kalyn Bischoff, South Dakota State University (SDSU) Extension cow-calf specialist, offered some advice on what to do this fall to best manage the cowherd and set yourself up for a success in the upcoming year.
First, manage the body condition score (BCS) of cows.
“Fall is a great time to manage the BCS of your cow herd,” Bischoff said. “Body condition scoring allows producers to visually evaluate the energy reserves of the cow herd. With the harsh summer conditions, many cattle lost BCS. For the 73 percent of cow-calf producers that spring calve, fall is the ideal time to rebuild any lost BCS. Following weaning there is a tremendous drop in the nutrient requirements because the cow is no longer lactating, and the requirements of the fetus are still minimal. Therefore, the dry period is the most economical time to add BCS. Cows need to be a BCS of 5 or greater at calving to ensure optimal subsequent fertility. Body condition score at calving is more important than BCS following calving, regardless of BCS gained following calving.”
According to SDSU Extension, females that calve in a BCS of 4 or less had a pregnancy rate of 61 percent compared to those that calved at a BCS of 5 which had a pregnancy rate of 88-98 percent.
The drought not only dried up pastures, but it also sizzled crops and hay fields, resulting in escalated feed prices. Bischoff said it’s important to evaluate your feed ration.
“Feed cattle according to their nutrient requirements and evaluate the nutrition value of the feed,” she advised. “Understanding the nutrient requirements of the herd throughout the production cycle will allow a producer to manage feed costs. Likewise producers need to get their feed tested, especially in a year of drought, when feeding values could vary tremendously from typical years. This will allow for proper calculation to meet nutrient requirements. Last year in South Dakota, feed costs accounted for 68 percent of the annual cow cost. This tremendous cost leaves little room for error in feeding management so being prepared and education is key.”
Checking cows for pregnancy is a management tool that could also save big bucks.
“In order to police production requirements, pregnancy diagnosis is practiced in a majority of operations,” she explained. “In many production scenarios across the western U.S., beef producers are allowed the convenience of diagnosing pregnancy in their cow herd following fall weaning. However, during a drought situation, such as the one being faced in the summer of 2012, alternative management may prove to be beneficial. Early identification of unproductive females within the herd will allow more time for management decisions to be made. In normal production circumstances, it is estimated that every open cow within your herd costs approximately $128 per cow exposed with an 85 percent pregnancy rate (with a 500 pound calf at $1.70 per pound). In a time of drought, the cost of production can dramatically increase, driving this number even higher. While there is no secret formula to help producers make the correct decision in the time of a drought, the early identification of any unproductive females within a herd can be a valuable management tool for producers to consider.”
Because feeder prices are high and forage resources are minimal and expensive, early weaning may be a possible option for producers to consider.
“Whether weaning two weeks or two months early, weaning allows producers to reduce the forage demand on their pastures,” Bischoff said. “It is estimated that every 2.5 days a calf is weaned will add an additional day of grazing for a 1200 pound cow. This is derived from the reduction of requirements from the cow, now that she is not lactating, and the calf is no longer grazing. A good pre-conditioning program will help improve the success of early weaning. Through management, immunization, and nutrition calves can have a low-stress transition through the weaning period. Producers should consult their veterinarian to determine what pre-conditioning immunizations will be most effective in their herd.”
Animal welfare expert Temple Grandin once said, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” Evaluate your cowherd, calves, feed options and bank sheet to manage through this drought.
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the June 19, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News