Using ultrasound to market and manage cows and heifers

Farm Forum

BROOKINGS — As the use of ultrasound in the beef industry continues to grow, many cattle producers continue to ask how ultrasound can generate profits. There are several ways to answer this question, but one of the first is found by calculating the cost of maintaining an open cow or heifer, explained Robin Salverson, SDSU Extension Cow/Calf Field Specialist.

“At times, females are held over through the winter months until after calving. How economical is it to have an open cow or heifer running all winter when average winter feed cost is $500 per head,” she asked.

Due to ultrasound technology’s ability to detect pregnancy as early as 27 days after conception, Salverson said cows and heifers can be diagnosed open a month or more earlier than by palpation. “This means cattle producers can wean calves early and sell culls when the cull market is higher,” she said, noting that Cattle Fax reported over a 19-year time period, cull cows sold in September brought on average $101 versus $91 in November.

Another advantage to early culling is the opportunity cattle producers have to sell open heifers at a younger age so they will fit the feeder cattle market. Whereas Salverson explained heifers close to 2-years of age suffer a price discount.

When culled early, replacement heifers or cows can also be marketed into 21 day calving groups at a premium.

How to use ultrasound as a management tool?

Ultrasound can also be used to determine fetal sex between 55 and 90 days of gestation. “Cattle producers can use this information to merchandise their cows or heifers more effectively. Producers wanting to expand their cowherd may be interested in females carrying heifer calves. On the other hand, producers interested in feedlot placement would be more interested in females carrying bull calves,” she said.

Reproductive efficiency continues to be an extremely important factor in determining the profitability of a given cow-calf operation, however, cost of production remains important in determining profitability.

“Management decisions based on sound information can help obtain optimum reproductive performance and minimize production costs,” Salverson said.

With this in mind, she recommends cattle producers use ultrasound as a management tool to gain the following information:

1. Determination of pregnancy status of heifers early in gestation allows producers to select earlier conceiving heifers as replacements. It is proven that heifers that conceive in the first 21 days of the breeding season remain in the herd longer.

2. Identifying and culling open heifers early will remove sub-fertile females from the herd.

3. Age the fetuses for the purpose of dividing the cow herd into management groups as they relate to nutrition and calving. Ultimately, the producer hopes to better manage the herd for nutrition immediately prior to calving and to reduce both feed costs and labor.

4. More open cows and heifers than expected may indicate an abortion problem. Early diagnosis could help solve the problem in a timely manner.

5. Identify ovarian problems and embryo viability.

6. Accurate early pregnancy diagnosis is valuable in an A.I. breeding programs because it can be used to verify early breeding and enable movement of pregnant cows or heifers out of confinement, thereby decreasing feed costs.

7. Grass production is not a concern this year, however, identifying and selling open heifers and cows early during years of drought will remove grazing pressure.

For more information on using ultrasound, contact Robin Salverson, SDSU Extension Cow-Calf Field Specialist at 605-374-4177 or

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