In many parts of the Corn Belt, producers have experienced a second straight summer of abnormally dry weather. The drought, coupled with ergot infestation at relatively high concentrations in some pastures, may be contributing to sub-optimal pregnancy rates in spring calving herds again this fall.
From a benchmarking perspective, in a “normal” summer breeding season it should be expected that 90% of your mature cowherd will become pregnant within a 63 day breeding season. A pregnancy rate of 93% is considered exceptional, and a pregnancy rate below 87% is typically considered below average. The exception to this benchmark is in a heavily-infected, fescue-based system, where producers can expect a reduction in these figures by as much as 3-5%.
Although most producers are trying to minimize costs at a time when feed costs are volatile, skipping an end-of-season pregnancy diagnosis for the herd is not the place to start. I would argue that a pregnancy diagnosis is one of the best investments you can make in your herd. Moreover, with the slim margins noted in many facets of the beef industry, some producers can’t afford not to conduct a pregnancy exam. It may sound crazy, but paying for a pregnancy diagnosis will most likely make you money. Particularly with wintering feed costs exceeding $250 in many locations, identifying even one open cow quickly pays for the veterinary bill with money left over.
For example, if you have 100 cows and pregnancy diagnosis is $6/cow, you have spent $600 in pregnancy diagnoses. Even if you are an exceptional herd, you will likely have 7 non-pregnant cows upon diagnosis. At $250/cow saved in wintering costs ($1750 total), after subtracting $600 in veterinarian fees, the producer is still netting $1150 in opportunity cost.
Once open cows are identified, an appropriate marketing strategy needs to be developed. Cull breeding animals typically represent about 20% of the gross receipts for cow-calf operations. Therefore, careful consideration should be taken to explore all management and marketing options available.
Depending on age and body condition, as well as the cause of being open, alternative marketing options may include moving to a different breeding season, sell as an embryo recipient, or if cost of gain allows, feeding to reach a utility market. To assist in this decision, producers should be cognizant of seasonal price swings typically noted in the cull cow market.
For more information on developing and end-of-breeding season management plan, consult with the team of experts you have assembled including your beef extension specialist, herd health veterinarian, and nutritionist.
Source: Patrick Gunn, ISU Extension cow-calf specialist