The shorter the better

By John F. Grimes, OSU Extension Beef Coordinator

The title of this article could apply to many things in our everyday life if you think about it. Nobody likes a long wait at our favorite restaurant, a long visit at the doctor’s office, long lines while attending an amusement park, or the long number of days waiting on a potential tax-refund from the IRS. You get the idea. Something else that should fall in the “shorter the better” category for beef producers is the breeding season. Regardless of the size and scope of your operation or your preferred time of year to calve, there is little economic justification for a lengthy calving season. This topic has been addressed through countless articles in popular press and Extension meetings. The arrival of breeding season for many herds seems like an appropriate time to revisit this issue.

Regardless of whether you use a natural service sire or artificial insemination in your breeding program, there is little justification for a lengthy breeding season. A 60 day breeding season is an ideal goal to shoot for and I would recommend nothing longer than 90 days. If you are currently involved in a longer breeding season, there are valid economic and management reasons to make a change. It requires a little discipline, some rigid culling, and a willingness to use technology and other resources available.

A frequent contributor to the Ohio BEEF Cattle letter, Dr. Glenn Selk, Oklahoma State University’s Extension Cattle Reproduction Specialist provides economic incentives for a shorter breeding season. A joint study between Oklahoma State and Texas A&M Universities found a positive relationship between number of days of the breeding season and the production cost per hundredweight of calf weaned. Also they reported a negative relationship between number of days of the breeding season and pounds of calf weaned per cow per year.

The data suggested that for each day the breeding season was lengthened, the annual cost of producing a hundred pounds of weaned calf increased by 4.7 cents and pounds of calf weaned per cow per year decreased by 0.158 pounds. The range of breeding seasons in the data set was from extremely short (less than one month) to 365 days or continuous presence of the bull. The trend lines that resulted from the analysis of the data give us an opportunity to evaluate the economic importance of a defined breeding season. The producer that leaves the bull out year-round (365 days) would sell 45.82 fewer pounds of calf per cow per year on the average than producers with a 75 day breeding season. That same producer would have $13.63 greater costs per hundredweight of weaned calf than the producer that used a 75 day breeding season. In this era of cost/price squeezes, a well-defined breeding and calving season provides a better opportunity to survive the volatility of cattle prices and input costs.

Another frequent contributor to the Ohio BEEF Cattle letter, Dr. Les Anderson, Beef Extension Specialist, University of Kentucky, reminds us that there are several heat synchronization programs available to producers. These tools do not have to be used exclusively in artificial insemination programs and can improve conception rates in herds using natural service sires.

One method to improve reproductive performance of your cow herd is to synchronize estrus prior to bull turn out. Studies conducted at UK have demonstrated that treatment of cows with a CIDR device for 7 days before natural service can have increase pregnancy rate 5-15% and can increase the proportion of cows that calve in the first 30 days of the breeding season. Their most recent data indicates that the CIDR devices only need to be inserted in cows that are likely to have trouble conceiving early in a breeding season; late-calvers and two-year old cows. By “targeting” our reproductive management to these cows, one can improve the whole herd performance and limit our input costs.

Nearly every management decision associated with the cow herd is simplified with a shorter calving season. Herd health, nutritional, and reproductive management are much easier when all cows are in a similar stage of production. Restricting the breeding season to 60 to 90 days will produce a more uniform calf crop which enhances marketing opportunities. It is easier to match up your forage supply with the nutritional demands of your herd when all animals are in a similar production cycle. Vaccination programs are more effective when animals in the breeding herd are in a similar reproductive status.

A more concentrated calving season is important for the smaller or part-time producers who have major time restrictions in their daily lives. I don’t know of any producer that enjoys the stress and worry of calving season over an extended period of time. This is especially true if calving season comes during inclement weather and you are away from the farm for long stretches of time during an average day.

A shorter calving season will eventually lead to greater efficiencies in reproduction rates. Palpate shortly after the conclusion of the breeding season and cull heifers and cows that don’t conceive within your given calving season and don’t look back. Keep daughters of the cows that get bred early each calving season. If necessary, buy bred females that calve within your desired window to replace the open females. Implementation of these practices will certainly improve your herd’s reproductive performance over time.

Given the current prices seen in today’s cattle markets, culling females with poor reproductive performance should not be a difficult decision. Open yearling heifers can be sold as heavy feeder cattle or fed a finishing ration for a short period and sold as market heifers. While prices for feeder and market cattle have moderated a bit as of late, they still remain very favorable. Open cows are selling at a premium price compared to historic levels so take advantage of this marketing opportunity.

You may slip below your targeted herd size through aggressive culling. I will contend that a producer can manage through this issue. Replace open females or females conceiving outside of a 60-90 day calving season window with bred heifers or young cows that fit your shortened calving season. While quality replacement females may be selling at a higher price than previous years, the value of a shortened calving window with simplified management and improved marketing possibilities will more than compensate for the added expense of purchased replacement females.

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