April is an exciting time of the year for cow-calf producers. The 2017 calf crop is taking shape and breeding season is currently or soon will be underway. We have begun to emerge from the doldrums of winter to the warmth and new growth of spring. The drudgery of feeding hay to the herd is coming to an end as pastures begin their early spring flush of growth. It is certainly a great feeling to see cow-calf pairs turned out to fresh pastures for the first grazing of the season.
However, this is not necessarily a time for the cow-calf to relax and take for granted that the nutritional needs of the breeding herd are being met. In fact, this may be the most critical time of the year for producers to focus on the needs of the herd. This is especially true for yearling heifers and two-year-olds nursing their first calves.
Think about the change in environment that the breeding herd is going through at this time. Typically, beef herds have been fed ample supplies of dried, harvested forages of variable quality (some good, some not so good) for the past 4-5 months. Cows consuming average quality forage during this time will potentially consume 2.2% to 2.5% of their body weight in forage dry matter intake. Females are now starting to graze forages that will typically be consumed at 2.5% to 2.7% of their body weight. Given that these forages currently may have a dry matter content of only 15% to 30%, females may not be physically able to eat enough to meet their dietary needs.
The transition from a drylot situation to fresh pasture can be troublesome for yearling heifers and young lactating cows. Several research studies conducted at different universities showed that heifers and cows that were not supplemented when turned out on early season pasture saw weight loss and significantly lower pregnancy rates early in the breeding season compared to females that were supplemented.
Early season pasture is generally higher in protein and lacking in energy. Any supplemental feed offered to females in this situation should be higher in energy content. Once the typical beef female gets a taste of lush pasture, it will be difficult to persuade her to eat any significant amount of dry hay. Consider offering a feed such as corn or soybean hulls to add energy to the diet. This should help the beef female to maintain body condition and positively impact reproduction rates.
The spring is a good time for the producer to make certain evaluations of the beef herd to help make culling decisions. One of the obvious culling decisions that should be made immediately relates to pregnancy status. Far too many producers do not utilize palpation, ultrasound, or blood testing to determine pregnancy status at the conclusion of the breeding season. Discovering that a female is open during the following calving season is an expensive proposition. Do not perpetuate problem by trying to breed the open female again. Even if you get her bred again, she will accumulate two years of expenses between calves and will be nearly impossible for her to be profitable in her lifetime.
An additional criteria to be examined when culling cows is udder quality. Udder quality is not just a consideration for dairy producers. Udder issues can impact cow productivity and can create extra management issues for the producer. Several beef breed associations have developed evaluation systems for udder soundness. Teat size and shape as well as udder suspension are the primary characteristics evaluated. Make notes on cows with problem udders early in their lactation for future culling purposes.
Calving and breeding season is certainly an excellent time to evaluate the disposition of females in the herd. Calving time will bring out maternal behaviors but they must not be tolerated to the point that the producer is at risk. Observe the disposition of animals in the herd when doing any spring herd work or breeding season activities. Given the advanced age of the average beef producer, it appears that disposition of the beef animal is becoming a higher priority selection trait.
Spring is certainly an exciting time of year for the cow-calf producer. It is a time when many important management decisions can be made to impact future profitability of the herd. Take time this spring to evaluate the herd to improve your bottom line.