Beef producers today are again looking at the old good news/bad news situation. The good news is, calf prices are higher than most of us ever thought we would live to see. Unfortunately this is offset by record high grain and feed prices, expensive fuel and fertilizer, increasing rental rates of pasture lands, and labor that is not only expensive but hard to find. To top off high input prices, add in the effects of extremely limited forage and hay due to the ongoing drought. The bottom line is that profits are within reach, but only for those that take control of their herd management.
Perhaps the biggest waste of expensive inputs is the open, or non-pregnant, cow. Although costs vary widely between producers the average cost of maintaining a cow in Oklahoma is in excess of $450.00/yr. This is for all costs including feed, supplies, equipment depreciation, grazing forage, interest, and opportunity costs. Approximately 80% of this cost is incurred in the months between October and April. You can do the math for your herd but it is easy to see that each open cow is robbing the profits earned by several cows that wean calves. Cull cow prices are high and many of these cows are in better condition now than they will be in the late winter or spring. By pregnancy checking your cows in the fall you can eliminate these wasted inputs and use the current high salvage value to replace open cows with bred cows or heifers.
There are a couple of options for pregnancy testing, both with pros and cons. The old standby is rectal palpation by an experienced veterinarian. The cost will vary by area, your facilities and help provided, and the number you need done, but for most practitioners it will run about $5.00 per head. The advantage for this method is that you know which cows are pregnant or open immediately, before you turn them back out. In the hands of a competent veterinarian this method is very accurate from about 30 days until full term. On occasion the veterinarian will also pick up other problems that need to be addressed, such as lymphoma in cows or narrow pelvises in heifers.
Another option for pregnancy testing is a blood test available through BioPryn. This test attempts to detect traces of a specific protein in the blood that is only produced by the placenta. Producers can draw blood samples and submit them to a laboratory for the testing. The cost of the test is about $2.50 per test, plus the cost of the blood collection supplies, blood tubes, and postage. This test is accurate after about 28 days in heifers and dry cows and after about 73 days in nursing cows. One drawback is that the test requires 3 to 5 days to know who is pregnant or open, so the cows may need to be gathered a second time to sort off the open cows. More information, including instructions for taking samples and a catalog of collecting supplies, can be found at www.biotracking.com.
No matter which method you choose to determine pregnancy, don’t forget that while they are in the chute is a great time to examine mouths to determine age and evaluate udder condition and temperament. Old cows, cows with bad udders, and cows with attitude problems should also be culled along with the open cows. Even if these problem cows are pregnant in the fall, their chances of actually weaning a calf are greatly reduced. With today’s costs, every cow has to bring you a paycheck every year. If she can’t do it with a calf, she will have to do it with herself.
Source: Dave Sparks, DVM, Oklahoma State University Area Extension Veterinarian and J.J. Jones, Oklahoma State University Area Extension Agriculture Economist