Valuable information in cattle records
September 9, 2009
Most beef cattle producers know about the IRM little red books or other similar products that can be carried around in your shirt pocket to keep calving records and all kinds of other valuable information about your cow herd management throughout the year. Many faithfully carry them throughout the year and record abundant information.
My question is how many producers get the maximum value out of all of that information once they have it recorded? Does the information get transferred into some kind of data management system where it can be analyzed to make management decisions? I hope there isn’t a drawer in the desk or kitchen cabinet that is full of these books from past years that are receiving little or no use. There is powerful information in these books that could be used to make powerful cattle selection and culling decisions. Following are some example questions that could easily be answered from this information.
Before the questions, though, there are some things that need to be done with the information in the books to improve its usefulness. First, this is based on the assumption that the cows are ear tagged so calving information (birth date, birth weight, calf sex, etc.) has been individually recorded into the book. It also would be tremendously valuable for many of the following questions to have individual weaning weights on the calves. Next, the information has to be gathered into a form that makes it easier to study and analyze the numbers. This could be making a table on a sheet of paper from the Big Chief tablet, but putting it on the computer will allow a lot more ability to sort the data, calculate averages, etc. to gain the most from the data. Thus, a personal computer is a valuable tool. There are a variety of software programs designed for keeping cattle records that can be purchased for a range of prices depending on how many bells and whistles the program has. Another alternative is that many personal computers are purchased with spreadsheet programs such as Microsoft Excel pre-installed on them. Spreadsheets are a great place to put the cattle data into a table that looks a lot like the table on the piece of paper from the Big Chief tablet. With a little knowledge of how to sort the spreadsheet table and use the built in formulas to calculate averages and counts can make any of us dangerous as data analysts.
So what are some questions that could be asked that would help with culling decisions? Ultimately, I would suggest that it would be good to always know who the bottom 10 percent of the cows are. Someday drought will return, and if the cow herd has to get smaller, knowing who the worst cows are will make it easier to decide which to load on a truck to go to town. Even without desperate times like a drought, the poorest cows in the herd are probably not profitable and knowing who they are prepares you to know who to cull when better quality replacements are available. Which data should be used to pick the poorest cows? Obvious choices are the cows that wean the lightest calves, have the most calving difficulty, etc.
On the other end of the spectrum, who are the best 10 percent of the cows in the herd? Not only are these the cows that contribute the most toward your profit potential, but they also are the best source of replacement heifers. If they are top cows, it’s likely their daughters will make good cows, too. It might be worth the effort to specifically search through the records of replacement heifers to see which cows have consistently produced heifers that were retained as replacements and successfully entered the herd as cows.
A third question would be to consider the overall strengths and weaknesses of the herd to consider which traits to focus on for bull selection. Bull purchases focused on overcoming weaknesses (without ignoring the strengths so they get lost) should play a role in making the greatest genetic improvement in the herd based on genetics from the bulls. This may require comparing average birth date, weaning weight, percentage of cows with calving difficulty, and other variables for your herd to national or regional benchmarks for the level of performance of other herds in your state or area. Check with your local Extension agent or beef specialist if you are looking for benchmark data for these comparisons.
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These are just a few examples, and many other herd management improvements can be made in a more informed manner by better understanding the performance characteristics of the herd. Making the move from a little red book in your shirt pocket to the answers to these questions can appear complex and daunting, which can make it easy to procrastinate. However, it can be a really good use of some indoor time during the cold this coming winter. Assistance getting starting is available from a variety of sources, particularly your local extension agent.