Ivan Rush: Drought, age and source marketing & bull turnout
May 11, 2012
Cattle are starting to move to grass. In a few areas sufficient moisture has allowed the grass to get a start; still much more rainfall is needed to produce good summer pasture. Rainfall is unpredictable, but unless rain comes fairly soon, grass will be short.
Much is written about drought planning. While it is fine to have a Plan B, usually the alternative comes with concerns, stress – and if the cowherd is maintained – is often more expensive. We all had to deal with drought conditions starting in 2002, which lasted 6-8 years. Perhaps Plan B has been utilized in the recent past.
One drought variable that has changed since 2002 is that harvested forages and grains (corn) is now two- to three-times more expensive, which makes dry-lotting cattle a less attractive alternative.
In some places, where cheap harvested feed can be found, it may be competitive to pasture rent at $50-$60 per pair, from what I’ve heard. Fortunately for the rancher, most lease rates are not that high. Admittedly with the high value on rangeland, economics would say those prices are needed for a decent return on rangeland. Those assumptions, of course, do not consider land inflation, which is the main driving factor in making a land investment.
Back to drought, there is one tool that has proven to be easy, usually economical, and a way to maintain or increase cow condition – early weaning calves. Calves can be weaned very easily at four months of age with high-quality rations.
It is not too early to start thinking about marketing the calf crop and how to increase their value. Discussions continue in regard to how long age- and source-verification premiums will be available. Japan has announced it will join other countries and accept U.S. beef up to 30 months of age, however that has not occurred yet. Most agree that if, or when, Japan accepts cattle up to 30 months of age the premium may go away or decrease considerably. That is an unknown because Japan may still desire source- and age-verification. Others suggest that some consumers may be willing to pay for source verification.
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There is no doubt that unless your operation is in an alliance contract, age and source premiums may not be available when cattle are marketed; therefore the cost of qualifying cattle may not be recovered. Source- and age-verified cattle have received $0-$50 per head at slaughter with a range of $15-$45 not at all uncommon.
Some are quick to point out that when more cattle qualify for age and source, the premium decreases because a larger supply is available. There has also been reluctance to see much premiums for age and source calves, especially when sold in small groups as calves or yearlings.
In the event that you do want to get your calves age- and source-verified, now is the time to start. Previously some programs did not require individual birth dates, just the birth date of the first calf in a group of calves. To my knowledge, current programs are asking to see calving books with individual birth dates, which most ranchers keep. The most important part is to have a third-party verify the records, which may incur a charge.
Just saying in the salebarn, “I know the age and source of all my calves,” has little value. Some companies have a fixed one-time charge with an annual charge, while others have a per head, or a combination of herd and head charge.
The third party’s job is to verify the accuracy of the rancher’s records. Many companies offer these services. Advice and experience can be gained from neighbors, extension beef specialists, veterinarians and industry representative. Industry cattle magazines also publish a list of available programs annually, along with a few of features of each program.
Age- and source-verification should not be confused with the recent National Animal Identification System (NAIS). Age and source is for marketing purposes, while NAIS is for disease traceability.
Many companies that conduct third-party verification do not require electronic ear tags. Others do, which enables some management and processing efficiency, especially with computer management programs. Regardless, the tags are not a requirement for those wanting to age- and source-verify cattle.
Because of the current opportunities for age- and source-verification, I suggest producers continue to take all the necessary steps to be eligible. Likely you’re already doing everything except having third-party verification.
Bull turnout is just around the corner. It is time to schedule fertility testing if not already done. A couple of thoughts on bull management:
• Conventional bull-to-cow ratios. Most people recommend one mature bull for 25 cows, and perhaps 20 for yearling bulls. I consider this a very conservative and safe recommendation. I personally have no problem recommending one mature, fertility-tested bull for 40 cows in most pastures in the high plains area. Research data and rancher experience support this practice. In areas where terrain is very rugged and has watering sites a great distance apart, the conventional recommendation may be more appropriate.
• Running yearling bulls with mature bulls. Data and experience suggests that this will result in injuries of the very young bull. Oftentimes young bulls get very few cows bred, especially in the early part of the breeding season, even if not physically injured. If young bulls are used in multi-sire pastures I prefer to keep young bulls of the same age together if at all possible.