The basic management tool can mean the difference between profit and loss
Most cattle producers understand the importance of having productive cows as members of their herd.
To ensure they are keeping only productive cows that are worthy of investment, producers should make pregnancy checks part of their management plan.
“Preg checking cows is a pretty basic management tool that most farmers should adopt. It costs essentially the same to run an open cow as it does a bred cow for a year and the open cow isn’t going to produce a calf for you to sell and create income,” Andy McCorkill, livestock specialist with the University of Missouri Extension, said. “This year, more than most, it is going to be an important tool in planning for fall and winter forage availability; grass is short, and hay is expensive because we had a poor spring for raising hay and no rain all summer, so there just isn’t much hay out there to purchase worth the money. If we can determine what females in the herd aren’t working for us and just aren’t productive, we can cull them and focus our inputs on those animals that will perform, saving on winter feeding expenses. Saving on the winter feed bill is going to be a major key to staying profitable this year.”
Preg checking will also help with not just profitability, but also will ensure a smooth start to calving season.
“Diagnosing pregnancy is an important practice in cattle production. First, it gives the producer a time frame for when to expect calving,” explained Dr. Heidi Ward, assistant professor and veterinarian with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. “Knowing the estimated calving date will allow the producer to observe the cows for potential problems such as calving difficulty or not producing milk.”
There are some different techniques for preg checking cows, including rectal palpitation, which is the most commonly used method, ultrasound and blood tests.
“Pregnancy and stage of gestation can be determined using ultrasound or rectal palpation,” explained Ward. “Although a blood test can confirm conception, it doesn’t necessarily mean the animal is pregnant, especially for first-calf heifers that are at a higher risk of early pregnancy loss. Ultrasound is more accurate and can detect pregnancy as early as 13 days after breeding.”
While just one pregnancy check for the whole herd is usually adequate, some situations might require additional checks.
“In some instances, there might be the need or desire for multiple preg checks at different stages; that’s the case with the Show-Me Select Heifer Program,” McCorkill said. “We require the heifers be preg checked early, by 90 days from the start of the breeding season, and then again shortly before they are sold. The early preg check helps us to narrow down the calving date much closer, to a matter of days in many instances with the use of ultrasound, and the later one just before the sale helps to confirm the heifer is still bred and by that time she should be far enough along to feel pretty certain she will have a calf. Using ultrasound in the appropriate window early in the pregnancy also provided the ability to sex the calf with a high degree of certainty.”
Smaller producers might wonder if pregnancy checking is a cost-effective practice.
“It is cost effective for small producers and quite possibly more important to them than others,” McCorkill said. “Most estimates put the feeding costs of carrying a beef cow somewhere above $300/year. That figure doesn’t include other costs associated with keeping her for the year so the number climbs rapidly from there. That expense is there whether she raises a calf every year or not. Compared to that, spending less than $10 to get them preg checked is a pretty nominal expense. Hopefully you will find that 90 percent or better of your cows are bred to calve within your defined calving season.”
Once producers have made the decision to invest in pregnancy checks, there is some amount of preparation to ensure that the process goes smoothly.
“Have adequate working facilities,” McCorkill advised. The working area should be clean and free of obstructions.
Record keeping is also important for preg checking success.
“Producers should know the approximate date of breeding to know the best time to have the cows preg checked. Working cattle through the chute is stressful, so getting it right the first time is best,” Ward said.
“When it comes down to it, there are a number of reasons to preg check the cow herd, all revolving around simplifying management, targeting feeding to the appropriate nutritional level, and timely marketing of culls, all important to cutting expenses, increasing income or both,” McCorkill said.
Producers should consult their veterinarian to schedule their herd’s preg check appointment, and to make sure their herd is up to date on vaccinations to present disease related abortion risks.