Sure, cull cows are worth money, but the real returns to a cow-calf operation come from cows that breed up and put a healthy calf on the ground every year. For many producers, a boost in pregnancy, calving and weaning rates represents one of the best opportunities to improve returns, and a few adjustments in nutrition and management prior to breeding and during gestation can make it happen.

The key, however, lies in controlling production costs. If achieving a higher calving rate requires extra feed, labor and other inputs that inflate your annual cow costs, the value of those additional calves might not cover your expenses.

Reproduction is the most important factor in profitable beef production, says University of Nebraska animal scientist Rick Funston, PhD. CattleFax data bear this out, indicating that a 10 percent improvement in the weaned calf crop, on average, decreases breakeven price by $10 and increases returns to an operation by $52 per cow. Other factors that come closest in economic im-pact are weaning weight and calf price. For each of those, a 10 percent improvement decreases breakeven price by about $9 and increases returns by $43 per cow. In contrast, reducing feed costs by 10 percent decreases breakeven price by about $5 and increases returns by $23 per cow.

Nutrition matters

Funston stresses that the nutritional status of the cow herd, particularly at critical times, is one of the most important factors determining conception, pregnancy and calving rates. If, for example, cows receive inadequate dietary energy during late pregnancy, they’ll have lower calving rates the following season even if energy intake is sufficient during the period between calving and breeding.

A good measure of nutritional status is the body-condition score, which Funston says should be 5 or 6 at calving. Body condition at calving, he adds, is the single most important factor determining when heifers and cows will resume cycling after calving and also influences response to nutrient intake after calving. Between calving and breeding season, research has shown that loss of body condition is associated with decreased ovarian activity and greater number of days to conception.

A 365-day effort

Consistently achieving that magical BCS at calving, and doing so cost-effectively, requires a long-term approach that matches the cow’s nutrient requirements to feed resources.

Gary Rolland coordinates the beef cattle management program at Fort Hays State University and manages the program’s commercial cow-calf herd in western Kansas.

The cow-calf operation at FHSU, Rolland says, is a commercial beef business based on managing resources for profit, rather than a research herd. Managers and students work to incorporate the best ideas into a working management system. Graduates then apply those systems to ranches that employ them later.

The ranch has developed a crossbreeding system using hybrid and crossbred cattle for efficient production and a high-quality end product. They finish their calves at Decatur County Feedyard in Kansas, collecting individual performance and carcass data to apply back to selection and management.

“We look at things in cycles,” he says, stressing the need for a year-round program of reproductive management. “If you breed cows in May or June, and they are behind in their nutrition in April, some damage already has been done and will negatively affect breeding success.”

One of the operation’s key management strategies, Rolland says, is to match the cow’s nutritional requirements to the cycle of production on native range. Western Kansas rangeland, he says, typically is at its best during April, May and June. The cow’s nutritional requirements are greatest during the period after calving until breeding. So calving on the ranch begins April 1, and the breeding season begins on June 20, with the timing tailored to the environment.

The decline in forage quantity and quality during late summer and into the fall coincides with the cow herd’s lower nutritional requirements. Rolland says he supplements the herd as needed through the winter, delivering protein and minerals in molasses-based tubs, but keeps supplementation to a minimum by planning ahead.

He says he begins preparing cows for breeding when he weans calves on Oct. 1. Weaning at that time allows the cows to gain, on average, a full body-condition score before winter. He tries to maintain the cows at a BCS of 5 or 6 all year. With time to recover condition after weaning, the cows are better able to maintain condition on winter range, with minimal supplementation.

Weaning on schedule is a first step toward breeding success, Rolland says. He expresses concern that late rains and green grass in the region last fall, coupled with a poor calf market, encouraged some producers to leave calves with their cows for too long. “Mistakes you make in October can hurt you in May or June,” he says.

Rolland stresses that successful ranch managers do a good job of managing transitions throughout the year. These include the transition from calving to lactation, then to breeding and eventually to weaning, and environmental transitions such as spring green-up and the shift from green grass to dormant forage in late summer.

A primary goal through these transitions, he says, is to keep cows from ever becoming thin. If cows come into the spring at BCS 3, even if they regain some condition prior to breeding, more of them will be open in the fall. Managers, he says, need to think proactively while looking ahead to the next transitions.

Rolland adds that the ranch’s emphasis on timing and utilization of standing forage keeps production costs low, and the operation’s current breakevens for weaned calves are in the low $90s.

Use inputs that pay

While he works at keeping production costs down, Rolland says managers also need to understand the effects of spending money or not spending money on critical inputs for nutrition, animal health and parasite control.

Funston again notes that strategic supplementation can cost-effectively improve fertility in the cow herd. Distillers’ grains, for example, appear to help conception rates as a protein supplement, and the product is relatively affordable on a unit of protein or energy basis. The product has about 120 percent the energy value of corn, 30 percent crude protein, contains 10 to 12 percent fat and is complementary to forages. Be sure to balance rations and avoid feeding excess nutrients, which is costly and can have negative effects on reproduction.

Fat supplementation, particularly during late gestation, has boosted pregnancy rates in research trials, but Funston says results vary in trials feeding fats during the period between calving and breeding. He warns that fat sources that are high in linoleic acid, such as some oilseeds, seem to have a negative effect. Generally, he says, fat helps if it fits economically into the ration, such as in the case of distillers’ grains where fat comes along with a good protein source.

Funston also notes that ionophores such as Bovatec and Rumensin, fed before and during breeding, can improve reproductive performance by shortening the postpartum interval, provided the diet includes adequate energy.

Calve early, calve often

There is a clear trend, Funston says, that as cows calve later in the season, they become more and more likely to fail to have a calf the following year. Calves born late in the season also tend to weigh less at weaning. A cow that calves in the first 21-day calving interval over eight to nine years of production, he says, will produce the weaning weight equivalent of one-and-a-half to two additional calves in her lifetime compared to one that starts late and stays late.

Proper nutrition, especially during late gestation and after calving, can help cows come into estrus early in the breeding season, but producers might also want to consider estrus synchronization with natural service.

Nebraska researchers recently completed a trial using a single injection of prostaglandin administered approximately 108 hours after bull turn-in to synchronize estrus in spring-calving mature beef cows. Synchronized cows achieved the same pregnancy rate in a 45-day breeding season as non-synchronized cows in 60 days. Prostaglandin increased the percentage of cows calving in the first 21 days to 73 percent compared with 61 percent in the non-synchronized group.