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Cow cost is too high to keep an open cow

October 24, 2013

Dr. Tom Troxel, Professor and Associate Department Head

In many parts of Arkansas, producers experienced plenty of spring and early summer rainfall. Unlike last year, hay is abundant and in many cases producers have more hay than they have cattle. With fall rains the outlook for winter pastures is optimistic and cattle are in much better body condition as compared to 2012.

The 300 Day Grazing demonstration conducted at the Livestock and Forestry Research Station near Batesville finished its fifth year. The average cow cost for the five year period was $503. Expense items included salt and mineral, veterinarian medicine, growth implants, fly control, sale commission, hauling, pregnancy testing, bull cost, fertility testing bulls, replacement cows, fertilizer, lime, purchased hay, herbicide, and miscellaneous. Overhead items and fuel, oil, labor, and other typical items were not included in the 300 Day Grazing budget. If these items were included, annual cow cost could easily be over $600.

With high cow cost, it often takes the net returns of 2 to 3 calves to pay for the cost of keeping one open cow. One can easily see keeping an open cow is a luxury most cannot afford. Often times the excuse to keeping a cow that lost a calf was; “it wasn’t her fault.” Is it worth the net returns of 2 to 3 calves to pay for a cow that lost a calf because “it wasn’t her fault?”  Is that a sound management decision?

Pregnancy testing and culling open cows is a sound management decision. The first year of the 300 Day Grazing demonstration the 60 day breeding season pregnancy rate was 79%. Due to culling all open cows or cows that did not produce a live calf, the pregnancy rate improved to 97% by year 3 (29/30) and 4 (37/38). In year 5, the worst drought in modern time (2012), the pregnancy rate was 93% (37/40).

According to the 2008 USDA’s National Animal Health Monitoring System survey, only 18% of U.S. Cow-calf operations utilize pregnancy testing, yet 82% control internal parasites.  Certainly internal parasites reduce the productivity of a cow herd, but so does feeding open cows.  So why don’t more cattlemen have their cows tested for pregnancy?


What is the cost savings for pregnancy testing?

For example, if you have 40 cows and pregnancy testing is $3/cow; total cost for pregnancy testing is $120. Even for an exceptional herd, there are 3 non-pregnant cows. At $250/cow saved in wintering costs ($750 total), after subtracting $120 in pregnancy diagnoses, the savings is $630.

Once open cows are identified, an appropriate marketing strategy needs to be developed. Culled breeding animals typically represent about 20% of the gross receipts for cow-calf operations. Therefore, careful consideration should be taken to explore all management and marketing options available.

Rectal palpation

Rectal palpation is one way to determine pregnancy. Currently, rectal palpation is the easiest, fastest, cheapest method, generally accurate method to determine pregnancy. With an experienced person, palpation can be 99% accurate at determining the pregnancy status 45 days post breeding.


Blood-based pregnancy testing

New technology has been developed to rapidly test cattle for pregnancy with a simple blood test.  Now ranchers can simply draw 2 cc’s of blood and ship it to a lab for analysis.  The tests are 97-99% accurate, if they are taken at the right time.  The test must be taken at least 30 days after breeding or 30 or more days after the bulls come out of the breeding herd.  Cows that have calved and are lactating will also have the pregnancy proteins in their blood for up to 90 days after calving and will provide a false reading.  Therefore, the test must be given 90 days after calving and 30 days post-breeding.

The cost of the actual lab test varies from $ 2.50 to $ 3.50 per head based on the lab.  The Livestock and Poultry Commission laboratory can analysis blood for bovine pregnancy. In addition, there is the cost of the blood tubes, needles, and the cost of shipping. Some labs provide complete testing kits that have all of the supplies needed; others only provide the testing and require purchasing of supplies from a veterinary supply company.

In the 300 Day Grazing herd blood samples are collected and submitted to the Livestock and Poultry Commission laboratory for pregnancy analysis.

Pregnancy testing is one of the most cost effective management practices a cow-calf producer can use. Testing for pregnancy is a lot easier if the cows have a defined breeding and calving season hopefully of 90 days of less. Even with a longer breeding and calving season, pregnancy testing can be implemented if accurate breeding records are kept. Not only does pregnancy testing save money but it is an investment into the future by culling poor reproductive cows. Retain heifers from those cows that calve every year and not those that calve 3 times out of 5 years.

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