Hay bales: Open cows and your bottom line

Mike Trammell - Pottawatomie County Ag Educator & Multi-county Agronomist
Mike Trammell joined the team as the Pottawatomie County agriculture extension educator and multi-county agronomist.

You should have already pregnancy checked your cows by this time, but if you haven’t, it might be a good time to consider it. Do you really want to go through the expense of feeding a cow through the winter that is not going to provide you with a sellable calf next year?

Beef producers today are again looking at the old good news/bad news situation. The good news is calf prices are high. Unfortunately, this is offset by high grain and feed prices, expensive fuel, and fertilizer, increasing rental rates of pasture lands, and labor that is not only expensive, but hard to find. To top off the situation. The bottom line is that profits are within reach, but only for those that take control of their herd management.

Perhaps the biggest waste of expensive inputs is the open, or non-pregnant, cow. Although costs vary widely between producers, the average cost of maintaining a cow in Oklahoma is more than $500 a year. This is for all costs including feed, supplies, equipment depreciation, grazing forage, interest, and opportunity costs. Approximately 80% of this cost is incurred in the months between October and April. You can do the math for your herd, but it is easy to see that each open cow is robbing you from the profits earned by several cows that wean calves. Cull cow prices are high and many of these cows are in better condition now than they will be in the late winter or spring. By pregnancy checking your cows in the fall you can eliminate these wasted inputs and use the current high salvage value to replace open cows with bred cows or heifers.

There are a couple of options for pregnancy testing, both with pros and cons. The old standby is rectal palpation by an experienced veterinarian. The cost will vary by area, your facilities and help provided, and the number you need done, but for most practitioners it will run about $5 per head. The advantage for this method is that you know which cows are pregnant or open immediately, before you turn them back out to pasture. In the hands of a competent veterinarian, this method is very accurate from about 30 days until full term. On occasion the veterinarian will pick up other problems that need to be addressed, such as lymphoma in cows or narrow pelvises in heifers. With this knowledge, you will be able to select the healthiest members of the herd to feed through the winter and in doing so, provide you with the most efficient cow herd in terms of reproductive success.

Another popular option for pregnancy testing is blood tests such as those available through BioPryn or IDEXX. These tests attempt to detect traces of a specific protein in the blood that is only produced by the placenta. Producers can draw blood samples and submit them to a laboratory for the testing. The cost of the tests varies depending on the product. These tests are accurate after about 28 days in heifers and dry cows and after about 73 days in nursing cows. One drawback is that these tests require 3 to 5 days to know who is pregnant or open, so cows may need to be gathered a second time to sort off the open ones.

No matter which method you choose to determine pregnancy, don’t forget that while they are in the chute that it’s a great time to examine mouths to determine age and evaluate udder condition and temperament. Old cows, cows with bad udders, and cows with attitude problems should also be culled along with the open cows. Even if these problem cows are pregnant in the fall, their chances of weaning a calf are greatly reduced. With today’s costs, every cow must bring you a paycheck every year. If she can’t do it with a calf, maybe you would be better off selling her and not have to deal with feeding an animal all winter that is not going to return you a sellable product in 2022. It would also help those of you that have limited hay and forage resources. Culling an open cow is just one less mouth to feed when you are trying to figure out how to get the rest of the herd through the winter on expensive and limited resources.

If you have questions concerning this topic or related topics, please contact the Pottawatomie County OSU Extension Center at 273-7683, stop by the office, or visit our website: http://www.oces.okstate.edu/pottawatomie/

The information given herein is for educational purposes only. Reference to commercial products or trade names is made with the understanding no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by the Cooperative Extension Service is implied.