Pregnancy checking opens door to strategic management

Farm Forum

The typical argument to get a greater proportion of producers to take advantage of pregnancy checking is that identifying nonpregnant females and culling them before the winter feeding period can result in a savings of 60 to 70 percent of the yearly expenses associated with maintaining a beef cow. However, pregnancy checking also opens many doors for producers to manage their herds strategically.

Once the decision has been made to pregnancy check, producers not only need to decide when to pregnancy check, but also define their strategy for managing the females identified as nonpregnant, pregnant, or need to be culled due to temperament, or physical or conformational problems. Specific options can include marketing and selling culls ahead of seasonal lows, putting cows on feed to target “white fat” cow markets, defining a calving season, sorting pregnant cows into management group based on body condition and/or age, and grouping pregnant females into anticipated calving groups.

Why pregnancy check early

Early pregnancy checking and culling allows producers to take advantage of seasonality in cull cow markets. November is the highest volume month for cull cow marketing, and prices reflect that. Producers able to pregnancy check in August or September can realize greater prices for cows marketed ahead of the seasonal rush.

The difference between selling in September and November has been about $7 per hundredweight, or $94.50 per female marketed. This price differential can be magnified even more in heifers when early pregnancy checking allows open heifers to be marketed during the same window of time as many yearling cattle are being marketed through auction markets, resulting in greater prices than producers would receive when pregnancy checking later in the year.

Producers need to take into account when marketing cows early that September also is ahead of typical weaning time for many producers. The calf obviously will be weaned if its dam is marketed, so producers must have a plan in place to sell or manage early weaned calves.

Targeting ‘white fat’ cow markets

Rather than marketing immediately, producers also can place cull cows on high-concentrate (feedlot) diets for a short period of time (60 to 90 days) to target “white fat” cow markets. Many nonpregnant cows also are thinner at the time of pregnancy checking, compared with their pregnant counterparts, resulting in favorable feed efficiency when placed on feed. Intake of cull cows typically will be much greater than that of traditional feedlot steers and heifers, but management can be similar.

Take care to transition cows onto high-concentrate diets to avoid digestive upsets; final diets can contain as little as 10 percent forage. Be very careful with diet forage and concentrate percentages in cases in which new cull cows frequently are being placed in pens. If additional cows will be accumulated at sales during a period of time, delay the transition onto final feedlot diets at least until an entire pen or group is in place. Also maintain consistent times for feed delivery to cows, and consider using growth-promoting technologies to improve returns.

Defining calving seasons

Gathering bulls out of breeding pastures can be difficult in some situations and nearly impossible in others. Having defined breeding seasons can impact profitability by matching cattle to available resources, refining nutrient delivery to groups of cattle, concentrating labor resources during calving, and increasing the sales price of calves through lot size and uniformity. However, bulls still were with females at the time of pregnancy checking in 44 percent of the 1,430 groups of females reported by North Dakota veterinarians in 2013 to 2014.

Rather than setting a defined breeding season by removing bulls, producers can define a set anticipated calving season by information gathered at the time of pregnancy checking. Work with your veterinarian to determine his or her comfort level in aging fetuses, and set a minimum age of pregnancy that matches the operation’s goals for the anticipated calving season.

Identify late-bred females that became pregnant after the cutoff data and consider marketing them as pregnant cows. Removing these late-bred cows from the herd will have a similar effect as removing the bulls after a defined breeding season. If pregnancy checking results reveal a large number of females that are late-bred, producers also have the flexibility to compare the option of calving them later that following year with the option of calving fewer cows than desired.

Consider grouping cows

Pregnancy checking also can serve as a time to body condition score cows and make grazing or feeding decisions based on those scores. Body condition score at calving can play an important role in controling body condition score at breeding, which plays an important role in whether the cow becomes pregnant.

If enough pens or pastures are available, consider grouping females by body condition and managing thin cows to gain condition and other cows to maintain body condition.

Considering age when grouping cows also can be beneficial to reduce the incidence of young cows/heifers or the oldest cows in the herd being pushed away from feed by dominant females in the herd. In addition, removing open cows from pastures before cows are moved to winter feeding areas may allow the remaining pregnant cows more access to feed resources and a greater chance to regain body condition.

Cows also can be sorted into anticipated calving groups based on findings at the time of pregnancy checking. This is accomplished most accurately with early pregnancy diagnosis, when fetal growth follows a relatively consistent pattern, compared with later gestation when nutrition and genetics have a greater influence on fetal growth. With the proper records, females can be placed into groups based on expected calving day to help concentrate calving labor checks on groups of females with the highest likelihood of calving in the immediate future.

Alternatives to relying on individual cow records to make calving groups include placing different color ear tags that represent the respective anticipated calving groups or strategically bleaching the hair of dark-hided cattle. Bleaching with different numbers, marks or marking patterns (vertical, horizontal) or in different locations (front shoulder, ribs, hip), to identify different calving groups provides a very quick visual indication of anticipated calving date, even if all cows are maintained in a single group.

Pregnancy checking can be a valuable strategy if the resultant information is used to make decisions that turn into action. Whether producers decide to sell opens cows immediately, place open cows on high-grain diets, define a calving season, target nutrition based on body condition or place cows into anticipated calving groups, pregnancy checking opens the door to strategic management of beef herds.