The last couple of years have been some of the most eventful in memory for this nation's cow-calf industry. While feeder calf prices have been historically high during this time, input costs have escalated as well. Aggressive cattlemen have always tried to balance to the antagonistic mix of maximizing gross income from their calf crop while controlling input costs. The bottom line is that it has always been and continues to be a challenge to make a profit in the cow-calf business.
Cow-calf producers are constantly searching for new ways to add value to their calf crop. Efforts are made to use the best genetics available, provide balanced diets, implement sound health programs, and provide management history in order to attract potential buyers. Buyers can be found in different locations. Traditional livestock marketing outlets continue to set the standard for market price discovery. Satellite and internet sales open up more potential markets for the producer. Source- and background-verified cattle are seeing increased demand with potential customers.
However, I am going to suggest a less-traditional option for cow-calf producers looking to maximize the value of their calves. My recommendation is not to raise your own calves but to raise someone else's calves. This can be accomplished by using your cows as "foster" or "surrogate" mothers to raise calves for other producers. In this situation, a herd of commercial cows serves as a "Cooperator Herd" for another herd wanting to produce additional calves from a desirable female through embryo transfer.
Embryo transfer is the process of removing eggs from a superovulated donor and placing them into recipient cows. Beef seedstock producers have utilized embryo transfer for many years as a means to produce more calves from females with real or perceived higher monetary value. The first calf resulting from embryo transfer was born in 1951 and the first commercial embryo transfers in cattle were done in the early 1970's.
The recipient cow is the key component to any successful embryo transfer program. A good candidate for a recipient cow is one that possesses the following important traits: the ability to deliver calf easily; adequate milk production; good mothering ability; and excellent fertility. This sounds that the job qualifications for a good commercial cow, doesn't it? The perceived notion of the "ideal" recipient cow has evolved over the years but it generally comes down to these previously mentioned traits.
The utilization of the recipient cow by seedstock producers has evolved over time. Seedstock producers have typically used lower valued cows in their herd or purchased commercial cows to serve as recipients for eggs produced in the embryo transfer programs. As the beef seedstock industry has become more competitive over time, many producers have been unable to produce enough calves out of valuable cows within the constraints of their current land, labor, facility, and cow herd resources. Several years ago, a few innovative producers sought out commercial herds as a means to produce more calves from their genetically superior or valuable females.
For the commercial herd to become a successful "Cooperator Herd", the operator must be willing to utilize the same recommended production practices used by profitable operations combined with the same basic heat synchronization protocols used by the artificial insemination industry. The process requires a higher degree of planning and recordkeeping than most producers are accustomed to but can easily be accomplished.
I will attempt to outline the basic process of transferring embryos into recipients. An implant date is established for transfer of the eggs. Cows targeted for use as recipients should at least 45-60 days post-partum and cycling. Cows are typically synchronized to get as many cows in heat as possible in a narrow time frame (+/- 24 hrs. from the scheduled implant time). A key point to remember is that embryos are removed from donor females at approximately seven days after breeding. Therefore, they are placed into recipients approximately seven days after she was in heat. A trained embryologist then transfers fresh or frozen embryos in recipients that have the proper uterine characteristics to match the seven-day-old embryo. Refer to the OSU Extension fact sheet "Utilization of Embryo Transfer in Beef Cattle" for more information on this subject. It can be found at the following link: http://ohioline.osu.edu/anr-fact/pdf/ANR_17_08.pdf
Conception rates for matings from embryo transfer will be similar to or slightly less than typical rates achieved through natural matings or artificial insemination. Typically, 55-70% of the fresh embryos and 50-65% of the frozen embryos implanted will result in pregnancies. Many factors will influence the pregnancy rates achieved at any given operation.
The following scenario would be a fairly typical "Cooperator Herd" scenario. The commercial producer covers the cost of synchronizing their cows in preparation for embryo transfer. They also provide the facilities and labor on the day of embryo transfer. The seedstock producer provides the embryos and pays for embryos to be implanted in the commercial cows. The commercial producer manages the cows that become pregnant with embryo calves along with the other cows in the herd. Calves are developed from birth to weaning and the seedstock producer purchases the calves produced from embryo transfer from the commercial producer. This is a bit of an oversimplification of a detailed process. I would strongly encourage both parties to develop a written agreement that outlines the different responsibilities and expectations for the entire process.
So why would a commercial cow-calf producer consider becoming a "Cooperator Herd"? Simply put, it is the easiest way I know of for the commercial producer to achieve the maximum price for their calves at weaning. Seedstock and club calf producers have shown a willingness to pay a premium for calves produced from their genetics and raised by another operation. There are many different arrangements that are utilized across the country. "Cooperator Herds" will receive a premium for their calves that will be in the form of an agreed upon price above the market price at weaning in either cents per pound or a flat per head price. Commonly reported premiums have ranged from $100 - $250 per weaned calf.
The "Cooperator Herd" concept, when carried out properly, can be a "win-win" process for both the seedstock producer and the commercial cow-calf producer. Yes, there are risks involved for both parties but they can be minimized. The primary advantage for the commercial producer is the ability to receive a large premium for a weaned calf with a nominal increase in input costs. The seedstock producer can producer can produce more calves from their valuable females without investing in long-term resources such as additional land or cows. At the core, the principles of this process are not vastly different from grain farmers renting crop ground. One producer is using the resources of a landlord to increase production. This sounds like American agriculture at its finest!
If you have any questions about the process of becoming a "Cooperator Herd", you can reach me by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 740-289-2071, extension 242.