1. Tighten your calving season

Kansas State University Extension livestock specialist Sandy Johnson notes that results of the Beef 2007 survey from the National Animal Health Monitoring System indicate that 54.5 percent of U.S. cow-calf operations, accounting for 34 percent of cows, have no defined breeding season. Of those that use one breeding season, 61 percent have a breeding season of 105 days or less, and 26 percent use a breeding season of 64 days or less.

Johnson says an analysis of Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico SPA data shows that for each day the breeding season is extended, the annual cost to produce a hundred pounds of weaned calf was increased by 5 cents, and the pounds of calf weaned per cow per year decreased by about 0.2 pounds. The market also rewards shorter calving seasons, as larger, uniform groups of calves typically bring better prices than smaller lots or groups of mixed weights.

One way to shorten breeding and calving seasons is simply to reduce the time cows spend with bulls. Research shows, though, that a fairly simple estrous-synchronization program can offer benefits. A recent summary from the University of Nebraska compared data from 60-day non-synchronized and 45-day synchronized breeding seasons, both using natural-service sires. In the 45-day synchronized system, 12 percent more calves were born in the first 21 days of the calving season, and the average weaning weight was 20 pounds greater than in the 60-day non-synchronized breeding season. The system used a single injection of prostaglandin, priced at about $2 per dose, given 108 hours after bull turn out.

“Don’t try to go from a 120-day breeding season to 60 days in one year,” Johnson warns, as pregnancy rates surely will suffer. Set some longer-term goals, and use timely pregnancy checking to make culling decisions, possibly selling latest calvers as bred cows.

2. Reduce calf scours

With a little extra management, you can virtually eliminate calf mortality from scours by using the Sandhills Calv-ing System. University of Nebraska Extension veterinarian David Smith ex-plains that pathogen levels are low when the season’s first calves are born and scouring incidence is low. But once a few calves develop scours, they shed large numbers of pathogens onto the pasture. Calves born later have more exposure, and pathogen levels and incidence of scours tend to snowball as the season progresses.

Smith and other veterinarians in Nebraska introduced the Sandhills Calving System in 2000. This system is designed to segregate calves by age and thus interrupt the cycle of infection. The basic idea is to use multiple calving pastures for a single cow herd. All the cows start out in pasture 1 as calving begins. After a week to 10 days, cows that have not yet calved move to pasture 2. This process repeats through the calving sea-son, with cows moving to fresh pasture for calving and pairs remaining on the pastures where the calves were born. Pairs can be commingled once calves reach 4 weeks of age.

Case studies from Nebraska include a 900-cow ranch that was losing 50 to 100 calves per year to scours. Since adopting the Sandhills system eight years ago, death loss from scours dropped to zero, with just four calves requiring treatment for scours in the first year.

Although named for the Sandhills region of Nebraska, the system can work anywhere, and producers can modify it to fit their environment and facilities as long as they stick with the basic principles.

3. Verify your calves

Cattle buyers increasingly recognize the value differences between calves with verifiable claims for proven health practices and those without. The trend holds true even during times of tight margins, as feeders become less willing to accept the risk of high morbidity rates and lost performance, and thus pay more for calves with known health background.

Superior Livestock Auction sale data from last year’s sale season demonstrated that age and source verification garnered a premium of $2.14 per hundredweight on 1,177 Superior Video sale lots. The same data analysis revealed that calves that were weaned 45 days and marketed as VAC 45 received premiums of $8.20 per hundredweight.

In a large study of price trends in Iowa sale barns, calves with certified vaccination claims and weaned at least 30 days earned premiums averaging $6.15 per hundredweight over the base. Calves with uncertified claims of vaccinations and at least 30 days weaning received $3.40 per hundredweight more than the base.

The researchers concluded that more practices and information receive a higher premium than less, and third-party certification is worth more than the seller’s claim. The benefits of third-party certification exceeded additional marketing costs associated with ID tags and commissions. After subtracting costs for preconditioning and maintaining calves longer, researchers estimated that selling weaned 600-pound calves returned $35 per head more than selling a 500-pound calf 45 days earlier.

Export requirements also contribute to the value of documentation. U.S. Premium Beef recently extended a $35-per-head premium for age- and source-verified cattle until the end of May. The premiums are intended to help the USPB export beef, particularly to Japan, and are contingent upon the Japanese market remaining open to the company’s products.

4. Use fence-line weaning

Weaning time is stressful for calves, and research and common sense tell us stressed calves don’t eat and are more likely to become sick. Reducing stress during weaning benefits health and performance, and growing numbers of producers find fence-line weaning, in which cows and calves retain contact across a fence, an effective and relatively easy solution.

University of California researchers reported a trial in the Journal of Animal Science in 2003 in which they compared behavior and performance of calves weaned using four methods — fence-line contact on pasture, total separation on pasture, and total separation on drylot either with or without preconditioning calves eating hay. Calves weaned by the fence-line method spent less time bawling than calves weaned away from their dams. The fence-line-weaned calves also spent less time walking around than those separated in a pasture and more time either resting or eating than those separated and placed in drylot.

Weight gains reflected those behaviors. During the first two weeks after weaning, fence-line-weaned calves gained almost double the weight of the average calf in the three totally separated treatments — 47.18 pounds versus 24.25. Over 10 weeks, the fence-line calves gained 110.2 pounds versus 84.2 for the separated calves.

Those benefits can carry over into the feedyard as well. Retired University of Nebraska beef specialist Ivan Rush provided an example from a commercial Nebraska feedyard, comparing six pens of calves — three containing fence-line-weaned calves and three with calves that were conventionally weaned. Over the feeding period, the fence-line-weaned calves gained an average of 2.79 pounds per day for a total cost of gain of $33.63 per head. Average daily gains in the conventionally weaned calves were 2.16 pounds per day and cost of gain jumped to $52.22.

5. Capitalize on hybrid vigor

Research shows that crossbred cows can offer productivity advantages over a straightbred herd. Animal scientist Larry Cundiff, PhD, at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, Clay Center, Neb., has conducted studies showing crossbred cows can wean up to 23 percent more pounds per cow exposed.

For producers who retain heifers from their own herds, there are numerous crossbreeding systems that can build and retain heterosis in the breeding herd, but some of the most practical involve using hybrid or composite bulls. Rotation of two-breed hybrids retains 67 percent of F1 heterosis, Cundiff says, and using a four-breed composite can retain up to 75 percent of F1 heterosis. In addition, he says, “composite populations provide greater opportunity to optimize use of breed differences to increase uniformity and end-product consistency.”

6. Control BVD fetal infection

When designing a bovine viral diarrhea control plan, vaccination for prevention of birth of persistently infected calves should be one of the first steps. As the principal source of fetal infection from BVD, PI calves compromise herd health and profitability, as they place the entire herd at risk.

“PIs often serve as the source of BVD virus in the herd that can result in fetal infections the next year,” says Pfizer Animal Health veterinarian Dale Grotelueschen. “Targeting the prevention of PI calves allows producers to lessen herd risk of BVD fetal infection, including the development of more PI calves the following year.”

Depending on the stage of gestation, the effects of fetal infection from BVD can range anywhere from infertility to compromised immune systems to persistent infection. PI calves that survive often appear healthy and reach maturity. These PI calves typically shed the BVD virus heavily throughout their lifetime, making it difficult for dams, unborn calves and herdmates to escape infection.

“Producers who plan their health programs over a multiyear window can do a better job of preventing PIs by designing approaches that reduce risk for exposure and minimize chances for occurrence of fetal infection,” Grotelueschen says.

A comprehensive control program includes biosecurity and strategic testing, along with using a vaccine that provides long-term prevention of BVD Types 1 and 2 PI calves.

K-State veterinarians have developed a BVD risk-assessment and decision tool, available online.