When discussing reproduction and its relationship to ranch profitability, it is important to establish context or circumstances. I like to think of it this way: The ranch is profitable, has reduced overheads significantly, has improved grazing management to enable more grazing and less feeding, and has determined that a cow-calf operation fits the ranch resources and location. Good management takes care of some of the most important things:
• Making sure a cow-calf enterprise is right for the ranch,
• Cutting overheads as much as possible,
• Replacing feeding with grazing.
Reproduction is usually thought of in terms of weaned calf crop percentage and pregnancy rate; some people use calves weaned per cow exposed. However, reproduction is really what the ranch has to sell in relationship to the size of the cowherd. Thus, death loss becomes part of reproduction. In addition, well-managed reproduction will result in more calves born earlier in the calving season, which should also result in more weight to sell.
While recognizing the benefits of good reproduction, it is important to recognize that many attempts to improve reproduction have an associated cost. Therefore, we need to match the added cost with the benefits.
Some pertinent questions regarding reproduction
It’s pretty easy to have good reproduction in a high-input environment. However, when the price of inputs keeps increasing and you want to become a low-cost operator, managing reproduction can be a little frightening.
If your herd’s pregnancy rate is already high, you need to ask how much additional feed would be necessary to get one or two more pregnancies from 100 cows. Or, conversely, how much feed could you remove from 100 cows and only have a very small reduction in conception. When considering estrus synchronization and other technologies, the costs and benefits need to be carefully compared. In this comparison, we must avoid or reduce being influenced by our biases.
How to manage reproduction is a real debate. I’m delighted by new information that indicates heifers don’t have to achieve 65% of projected mature cow weight or be developed in a feedlot to have good conception rates.
I like to manage replacement heifers like a “dry wintered” stocker animal, with a target breeding weight of about 55% of expected mature cow weight. Then, I like to expose enough heifers to get all the replacements I need in a 24-30-day breeding season.
It’s becoming more evident that heifers born early in the calving season are more likely to breed earlier than those born later. Meanwhile, heifers that conceive early in the breeding season will have longer productive lives than those that breed later.
So, it’s really pretty simple – you develop heifers with a low-cost method. You expose them for a short period of time and sell those that don’t conceive. Alternatively, you can expose the heifers for a longer time and sell those that conceive later in the breeding season. Just don’t be tempted to keep those “pretty” late-bred heifers.
As the replacement heifers move into the herd, they are more likely to rebreed early in the subsequent breeding season. If you’ve been developing heifers in a lot to achieve 65% of mature cow weight, you may want to take two or three steps to get from there to what I have suggested.
I’m often asked if I think this is management or genetics. I reply, “Yes.” It’s definitely management, but I also think it is genetics. After many years of watching, I’m quite sure that the heritability of early conception in yearling heifers is higher than for other aspects of fertility. I especially think that is true when the resources are limited to more closely fit the natural environment. In addition to the age of the heifer at the beginning of the breeding season, there are several things at play, including:
• Ability to thrive and reproduce in a low-input environment,
• Age at puberty,
• Development of the reproductive tract,
• Possibly the genetic expected mature cow weight.
I believe there is a strong genetic influence on early yearling heifer pregnancy from these traits in low-input environments.
While I don’t like recipes, because no two operations or areas are alike, here is an outline of my approach:
• Reduce fed feed to cows and heifers – target heifers to weigh 55% of mature cow weight at breeding and don’t worry if they are a little less.
• Expose heifers for a short time or sell the late-bred heifers. When you first try this, don’t expect more than about 70% of the heifers to become pregnant in 30 days. Those 70% are the good ones.
• Keep the cowherd calving season short by limiting the breeding season or selling late-bred or late-calving cows. Selling late-calving or late-bred cows can become a very nice enterprise for larger ranches.
• Supplement strategically, depending on your breeding and calving seasons. A little at the right time can make a big difference.
The benefits of this system are:
• The sale of more and heavier calves with better size uniformity,
• The ability to cull poor-performing or less desirable cows,
• The opportunity to sell bred animals for a premium over meat prices,
• A shorter breeding and calving season, which makes labor and feed supplementation easier to manage.
Some will argue the relative importance of reproduction and genetics. I find it difficult to argue without knowing your starting point.
A systems thinker takes a holistic view seeing reproduction, genetics, marketing and nutrition as relevant and important parts of a much larger system. Each needs consideration; and emphasis will be placed where there is the most potential for improved profitability.
Remember that the goal of genetics is not to maximize production, but to seek what is best for your production and marketing environment. The careful coordination of nutrition, reproduction, genetics and marketing can certainly add considerably to the bottom line.
Burke Teichert, consultant on strategic planning for ranches, is retired as vice president and general manager of Deseret. He resides in Orem, UT, and can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.