Most beef cattle producers know about the IRM 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, but putting it on the computer will allow more opportunity 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. Oklahoma State University has a publication that compares various programs in an easy to follow format. 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. With a little knowledge of how to sort the spreadsheet table and use the built in formulas to calculate averages and counts, this 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% 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.