Successful cattle producers have long recognized that fall is the time to pregnancy check cows before they get into the high maintenance costs of winter. It just doesn’t make sense to put hundreds of dollars worth of feed, pasture, interest, health care, and labor into a cow that is not going to bring home a paycheck next year. This is even more critical in these times of high feed, fertilizer, fuel, and labor costs. If that cow isn’t going to produce, why not replace her with one that will have a calf in the spring or save her part of your winter costs? Not only is now a good time to cull open cows before you spend the winter expenses, but they are probably in the best body condition and weight they will be in until the middle of next summer. A good theory is that every cow must bring in a check every year, either by selling her calf or selling herself. Far too many small to midsized cattle producers are saving pennies by not pregnancy testing while wasting dollars by not knowing which cows are open. Today, every beef producer has a choice of how to pregnancy check their cows.
The old standby for pregnancy checking is rectal palpation. In this procedure the veterinarian enters through the rectum and palpates the reproductive tract through the rectal wall. This should be done by an experienced food animal veterinarian. Although prices vary from one area to another and from one clinic to the next, it should run about $3.50 to $4.50 per cow, depending on how many you have done. The accuracy of the test depends on the experience of the operator. One advantage is that the diagnosis is made immediately at chute side allowing the open cows to be marked or sorted off while they are gathered. When this procedure is done by an experienced veterinarian it is fast, accurate, and reasonably inexpensive. Your veterinarian will also occasionally identify cows with reproductive tract problems or heifers with small pelvis size leading to calving difficulty. This allows you to cull these individuals before they become even greater problems for you.
A newer technique is ultrasound pregnancy testing. This requires much more in equipment and training and not all food animal veterinarians employ this technique. The veterinarian inserts a slender probe with an ultrasound transducer on the end into the cow’s rectum allowing the operator to “see” the reproductive tract on an ultrasound screen. Again, cost varies with area, operator, and number of cows, but typically is about $10.00 per cow. Like rectal palpation, a chief advantage is that the diagnosis is immediate, eliminating the need to re-gather the cows to sort off the open individuals. Ultrasound will detect earlier pregnancies than most operators can detect confidently by rectal palpation and also may show pathological conditions that rectal palpation may miss.
A third option for producers is a relatively new blood test developed by researchers at the University of Idaho. This test detects, in a blood sample, the presence of a specific protein that is only produced by the placenta. It is very accurate and can detect pregnancy as early as 30 days post breeding. The cost of the test is $2.50 per sample, plus the cost of the blood tubes and needles and also the cost of the postage to send it to a lab. More information, including instructions for obtaining blood samples from your animals and ordering information for blood tubes and needles, can be found at the website www.biotracking.com. With this test it is important to use a clean tube and needle for each individual to prevent cross contamination. You can collect the samples yourself or ask your veterinarian to do it for you. A disadvantage is that it will take several days to be notified of the results so you probably will need to re-gather the cows to sort off the open ones. Another disadvantage is that it only tells you if the cow is pregnant or open and gives no indication of how far along the pregnancy is. Rectal palpation and ultrasound will indicate fairly closely what stage of pregnancy the cow is in.
The cost of keeping an open cow can easily erase the profits of several producing cows. No matter which of these options best suits your operation, put a plug in the money drain of non-producing cows.