Category: Business

Producers struggle to regulate cow size

Teresa Clark
for The Fence Post

Determining what size of cow is ideal for the environment is a hot topic. It depends on the environment, the ranch, and sometimes the rancher. What is even harder is settling on a certain size of cow, and maintaining it.

University of Wyoming Extension Rangeland Specialist Derek Scasta shared a story about his grandfather’s struggles to maintain cow size in his own herd. “What we have is a lot of information to go through,” Scasta told producers during the recent Southeast Wyoming Beef Production convention. “When my grandfather would go to a bull sale, he was looking for EPDs for low birth weight and higher weaning weight, but he may have ignored the maternal traits, and then kept the higher end of the heifer calves for replacements,” he said. The result over time was larger cows.

Looking at the bull’s maternal EPDs will indicate how the heifer calves will look, Scasta said. The bull may have had a positive EPD for milk and mature size, producing larger daughters. “That is why you really need to sort through the bull catalog and look at those EPDs,” he said.

400 POUNDS

In 1975, the average beef cow in the U.S. weighed 1,000 pounds, which became the range management standard for calculating animal unit months. However, recent data suggests the average beef cow now weighs 1,400 pounds. “In 2010, 16 percent of the U.S. beef cows were more than 1,500 pounds,” Scasta said. “That’s millions of beef cows that weigh more than 1,500 pounds on range and pasture in the U.S.”

Despite a more than 400 pound increase in cow size in the last 40 years, Scasta said no evidence exists to suggest that increase has resulted in weaning larger calves. “We have enhanced the production and performance potential of cows, but we may not be realizing that in terms of calf weaning weight,” he said.

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The EPD for yearling weight has increased 100 pounds in the Angus breed, which basically shows ranchers have been selecting for growth in cattle. In 1985, the average carcass weight was 725 pounds, and in 2015, it was 892 pounds, which is 165 pounds larger. “Cattle are basically 20 percent heavier than 35 years ago, and 10 percent heavier than 15 years ago,” he said.

With that amount of growth has come some negatives in relation to animal welfare. Cattle pots were originally designed to haul smaller cattle. “With these bigger cattle, a lot of them will bump their back going into that lower deck, which leaves a bruise on their back leading to a cut out. It is costing the industry $35 million a year because the cattle are bigger today than what the trailers were originally designed for,” Scasta said.

RANGE IMPACT

It is not just a matter of muscle growth. Ranchers have also selected for milk production. “As we have enhanced the performance of our cattle, what has been happening to rangeland? Actually, rangeland has stayed pretty flat despite the production potential of cattle increasing. We have managed to optimize what we get from the range, and it has stayed pretty consistent over time,” he said. “Ranchers have done a good job of matching their cattle genetics with range productivity.”

Scasta said there is a lot of disagreement over optimum cow size. Some studies suggest smaller cows are better because of live weight production and income, while others find larger cows to be more efficient because they have a larger rumen which could be an advantage for the efficiency of processing low quality forages.

A lot of the data available comes from feeding trials, where they did a lot of modeling, Scasta said. “What I found was a lot of mixed studies, and a lack of information in Wyoming,” he said.

Do larger cows wean larger calves?

One study he shared that was published in the Journal of Animal Science, studied how cow size impacts calf weaning weights relative to precipitation extremes. The four-year study involved 80 cows grazing rangeland northwest of Laramie.

The study showed that during the driest years, the larger cows had an advantage, and the smaller cows weaned lighter calves. However, the results were opposite during wet years, and variable during average years. “Taking the average of all four years into account, they found no significant difference in terms of cow size class,” Scasta said. “Smaller cows weaned calves statistically similar to those weaned from the bigger cows, riding the roller coaster of wet-dry-wet-dry,” he said. Calculating the input-output ratio, which is the pounds of grass consumed relative to the pounds of calf weaned, the smaller cows were weaning similar size calves across all wet-dry cycles, Scasta said, while eating less because their nutritional requirements were lower.

A 1,000 pound cow consumed 7½ pounds of grass per pound of weaned calf, according to the study. For a 1,200 pound cow that number jumped to 8½ pounds, and for 1,400 pound cow, it was 9½ pounds. “Basically, the larger cows had to eat more per pound of calf weaned,” he said. “Most ranchers have an efficiency target for the cow weaning a calf that is at least 50 percent of the cow’s body weight. So, a 1,000 pound cow should wean at least a 500 pound calf. In this study, the smaller cows were the only ones to reach that target,” Scasta said.

In another study, Scasta worked with a Wyoming ranch to analyze 8,000 cow/calf records with 13 years of data to determine which cow size is most efficient. The cow size on this ranch varied from 800 to 1,600 pounds, but the majority of the cows weighed 1,100 to 1,300 pounds, Scasta said.

From this data, Scasta found that the smaller to moderate size cows were closer to hitting the 50 percent cow size to weaning weight target, compared to their larger counterparts. “The 1,600 pound cows were actually pretty inefficient for the amount of grass they eat,” he said. “I think the data indicates managing for moderate size cows, and to not let them get bigger over time.” ❖

— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at tclarklivenews@gmail.com.

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Turning common heifer development logic on its head

Most of you, because of “expert” advice, have been over-developing your heifers. Let’s throw out everything you have learned and start fresh to get the most efficient cows in your herd.

Burke Teichert | Nov 28, 2018

From my earliest memories of reading farm magazines and attending cattle management conferences or seminars until now, there have been many ideas and opinions about how to develop and select replacement heifers. I am about to offer a perspective that will differ from most of what you have heard or read during these many years. I have interspersed much of it in these articles during my time as a writer. Now I will try to put it in this one piece.

Heifer development not only can be, but should be much simpler than we typically make it.  Selection and development go hand in hand. They facilitate each other.

Most of you, because of “expert” advice you have received, have been over-developing your heifers. You have selected the biggest and prettiest heifers based on biased and subjective criteria. I want to suggest that you change that approach.

You will need to start where you are with the cattle that you have; so most of you will want to take a few years to get to the point I suggest. Each step will tell you how big the next step may be.

I think nearly every herd has some good cows. My definition of good—those that get pregnant, deliver and raise a good, not necessarily excellent, calf every year without you ever touching them except for routine immunizations. The rest are inferior. In the long run, you want those cows to be the mothers of your replacement heifers; so raise more of them.

How do you do it? You keep nearly all of your heifer calves. You only remove the few that are obviously challenged or inferior.

This will usually be less than 5% (maybe not at first, but keep most of them). You then shorten the heifer breeding season as fast as you dare until your bull and/or AI exposure is not more than 30 days, ideally 24.

If you have calving dates from previous years, you can see what percentage bred in 24, 45 or 65 days and can get an idea of how many days to expose this larger group of heifers. Because you will be keeping some later-born heifers and not developing them to gain as rapidly in addition to shortening the breeding season, you will need to expect a lower conception rate.

Now, instead of trying to get the heifers to 65% of expected mature cow weight, 55% will be enough. You may want to take a couple of years to get to that point. However, many have done it quickly.

I hope you see how this more moderate or “minimal” development plays into heifer selection.  With less input and size, the ones that conceive in a short season are truly the good heifers.  They are more closely adapted to your environment.

Now the arguments start to come:

  • I won’t be breeding the best heifers. You don’t know which ones are the best. Let the bulls and the environment tell you which ones are best. They are the ones that get pregnant. There are very few, if any, people that can look and tell which ones will breed.
  • I don’t want to keep that many heifers. Why not? Yearling operations are usually more profitable than cow-calf operations; and you should winter these calves like stockers going to grass. The only added expense is use of the bulls or AI.Open heifers should be nicely profitable. Many people are hesitant to keep more heifers because of the cost of development. If the cost of development is high, that is a problem; and unless you can change that, you shouldn’t be raising your own replacements.

    Don’t tell me that you need to develop your own heifers because they are better. If they were better, you could get a good breeding rate with less development cost. The added value of yearling heifers should be significantly more than the added cost.

  • I would like to use the genomic tools to evaluate the heifers before breeding them.  Why? Those tools might give you some genetic tendency information, but it won’t tell you which ones will get pregnant in the first 24 days. The bulls will.The average heifer calving in the second cycle cannot live long enough for her lifetime production to catch up with the heifers that calve in the first cycle regardless of other genetic differences.
  • That heifer’s mother isn’t good enough to keep the daughter as a replacement. You are selling the wrong one. Sell the mother. If you are using good maternal bulls, the heifer calf should have a good chance of being better than her mother. If you are not using good maternal bulls, you need to find them or raise them or become a terminal breeder.
  • I might soon have more pregnant heifers than I need. Good. Now you have a marketing opportunity. You may sell the excess bred heifers. Or my recommendation is to keep the bred heifers and sell enough late bred cows to make room for the heifers that are going to calve early.Many areas have buyers for cows bred to calve later than your calving season. Also, as you remove late-bred cows, your calving season will get shorter and the latest born heifer calves will be older and more likely to breed. You can see how the positive effects begin to multiply.
  • I don’t think those “underdeveloped” heifers will make good cows. Research done by Rick Funston at the University of Nebraska and Andy Roberts at the Land and Range Research Station in Miles City, Mont., plus a bunch of personal practical experience says that they will make better cows than the ones I am calling “over-developed.”If you want to help them along a little, do it from the time they are diagnosed pregnant as a yearling until they are checked pregnant as a 2-year old. That is the most difficult 12-month period of her life. You would much rather sell an open yearling than an open 2-year-old.

Now let’s ring up the pluses:

  • When you start putting many heifers into your herd that will all calve early in the calving season, you will soon be able to shorten the cow calving season by removing late bred (less efficient and less adapted) cows. As your calving season gets shorter, the latest born heifer calves will be older and more likely to breed. Weaning weights will also increase.
  • In future years, more and more heifers should be eligible breeders.
  • As more of these heifers come into your herd, you will be able to remove the less desirable cows. Soon you will get by with less supplemental feed and have an increased level of herd health.
  • New marketing opportunities will show up. Remember the ranchers who are terminal crossing or should be. They need your excess cows. Even though the late calving cows are a little inferior for you, they could work very well for the terminal breeders, especially after a few years into your program.

Two more points:  I am convinced that the heritability of fertility, under minimal heifer development and reduced cow herd inputs, is significantly higher than the estimates of low heritability that we usually hear. You need to buy or raise bulls that will not undo what you are trying to accomplish with your heifer development and cow culling.

Teichert, a consultant on strategic planning for ranches, retired in 2010 as vice president and general manager of AgReserves, Inc. He resides in Orem, Utah. Contact him at burketei@comcast.net.

Tagging Calves

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Tyson Pharo made a comment in last week’s PCC Update that came very close to ruffling some feathers. Good job, Tyson! Many cow-calf producers think it is sacrilegious to not ear tag calves at birth. Most do it because they have always done it. Several years ago, the PCC Discussion Group came up with several “Kooky Notions” that the members used to have. Ear tagging calves at birth was one of those kooky notions. I’m sure many subscribers are saying, “What’s wrong with tagging calves at birth?”

To begin with, each and every one of your cows knows which calf is hers – without an ear tag. If you are a commercial rancher (not raising registered cattle), you are NOT getting paid to ear tag your calves. I am not against putting identification ear tags in every animal – but it can be done when the calves are run through a chute for vaccinations, etc. It does not have to be done within a few hours after birth.

There are at least four problems with ear tagging calves at birth. First and foremost, it is dangerous. Every year we hear about someone being seriously injured or killed while trying to tag a newborn calf. How would you feel if someone in your family got hurt while tagging a newborn calf?

Second, ear tagging calves at birth disrupts the bond between a momma cow and her newborn calf. This is a very critical time for a newborn calf. Any outside interference does more harm than good.

Third, ear tagging calves sets you up to keep records on individual animal performance which will keep you from maximizing sustainable profit per acre. For the past 40+ years, the status quo beef industry has been enamored with increasing individual animal performance. This has created high-maintenance cattle that do not fit any environment outside of a feedlot. Consequently, the result of focusing on individual animal performance is reduced profits. I still believe most ranchers can double their profit per acre once they stop focusing on the wrong things.

Fourth, ear tagging calves at birth is very time consuming. It takes a whole lot more time than 30 to 60 seconds per calf. Tagging calves requires you to ride or drive to the cows and through the cows. If you don’t go at least twice a day, you will not be able to catch the calves. You must do this every day. Even if you have a short 45-day calving season, you will have at least 90 trips to and through the cows. Because tagging calves is time consuming, it will set the limit as to how many cows you can run. The most profitable ranches are running 500 to over 1000 cows per man. It would be impossible for these ranches to tag calves at birth. They spend their time (and money) on things that increase their profits.

The time and money most producers spend on things like keeping individual animal records and ear tagging calves at birth could be used to improve grazing management via fences and water development. This could easily double or triple your profits per acre. You could be getting paid two or three times more for doing half as much work. You could create a VERY profitable and sustainable business for your children and grandchildren.

I am often drawn into discussing this “kooky notion” at my speaking engagements. Tagging calves at birth is a paradigm that most producers struggle to get away from. For every reason people have given me to justify why they tag calves at birth, I have always been able provide an alternative.

People say they need to have an easy way to pair up cows and calves when going to summer pasture. I suggest you move bred cows to summer pasture and allow them to calve in sync with nature on green grass. Bred cows are much easier to handle, haul or drive than pairs. All of the problems producers associate with calving will magically disappear when cows are calved in sync with nature. You do NOT have to be there to see every calf born! Also… any cattleman worth his salt can pair up cows and calves without ear tags.

Some might ask, “So how do we identify the cows that produce the dink calves?” That’s easy… after separating the cows and calves at weaning, sort off the dink calves. Turn those dink calves back out with the cows – and they will make a beeline to their mommas. Ride out and bring in the dink pairs to be sold.

Would you be able to calve 500+ cows by yourself if every calf had to be ear tagged at birth? No – but you could if you did not have to tag calves. Mark Bowman, a PCC customer in Western Nebraska, once told me about an encounter he had with his dad who was over 80 years old at the time. Mark was calving around 1200 cows in sync with nature. His dad said, “If I knew ranching could be this easy, I would still be doing it.”

Keep it Simple… Mankind has always been notorious for making simple things complicated. It doesn’t have to be that way. Ranching can be fun, easy and profitable! If your ranch is NOT fun, easy and profitable, then you can only blame yourself.

Did you know… that the average age of cow-calf producers is close to 60? That is nearing retirement age for most businesses. Why do you think the average age is so high? Could it be that traditional (status quo) ranching is NOT fun, easy and profitable enough for the next generation to consider it as an occupation?

The Perfect Business Model

I have a great idea for a business!  Let me give you some of the details and then tell me if you will be willing to invest! My idea is to have a grocery store with about 70% less square footage than all my competitors.  We are going to do no advertising in the community; no newspaper advertising, no radio or TV, no mailers to local households. Our selection will be limited with no nationally known brands like Campbell’s Soup or General Mills, in fact we will only have our personal brand or brands you most likely have never heard of or seen before. Oh! And by the way, we will have only 1/10th the inventory available at a full-size supermarket. Are you ready to line up and hand over your money?

I didn’t think so and neither would I, if I didn’t know “the rest of the story.”

The grocery chain I just described is Trader Joe’s. The chain was created almost by accident or fate! The original Joe was Joe Coulombe, a Stanford University graduate who went to work for Rexall Drug Store, a national chain. In the late 1950s Rexall came up with a novel idea, they would start a “convenience” type store that had small square footage and sold necessities (Yes, we are talking a 7-Eleven style convenience store). Their test market was a chain called Pronto Market and started with half a dozen stores in the Los Angeles area. Joe was over the project and firmly believed it was a great idea.

Unfortunately (but fortunately for Joe!) Rexall gave up on the idea in 1958 and instructed Joe to shut down all the stores.  Instead he raised money and bought all the stores (Rexall was happy to get rid of all the locations).

Joe Coulombe grew Pronto Markets to 17 stores before Dallas-based Southland Corporation (creator of the 7-Eleven brand) expanded to Southern California, Joe knew he could never compete with the marketing muscle and economies of scale of 7-Eleven locations. Legend has it that Joe took a trip to Hawaii and came up with the idea of a new kind of grocery store that was laid back and sold specialty items that were organic, quality and well-priced.  He named his stores “Trader Joe’s.” The first store opened in 1967, about the time of the “surf movement” and a new generation of laid-back Americans (especially in California) came along. His timing could not have been better and over 20 years he opened one store per year, all with Hawaiian tropical themes. Yes, his employees wore Hawaiian shirts!

In 1979 Trader Joe’s was bought out by a German grocery magnate named Theo Albrecht. He persuaded Joe to remain and did not change the successful model. So how well has the “no marketing, no advertising, limited choices, off brand” concept worked?  Well, the average Trader Joe’s is twice as profitable per square foot of store space than the large national chains. To its many loyal customers, it is almost a cult. One customer in Kansas City who traveled to California would fill up a large suitcase on each visit. He even set up a Kansas City Facebook page to try and get a location started in Kansas City. By the way, he was successful!

Trader Joe’s management and ownership refuses to give interviews or release any information to anyone and refuses to do any media interviews. They are now up to over 470 locations in 44 states and growing. Here are a few facts about Trader Joe’s:

  • In February 2008, BusinessWeek reported that the company had the highest sales per square foot of any grocer in the United States.
  • The May 2009 issue of Consumer Reports ranked Trader Joe’s the second-best supermarket chain in the United States (after Wegmans)
  • In June 2009, MSN Money released its third annual Customer Service Hall of Fame survey results. Trader Joe’s ranked second in customer service among all companies, not just grocery stores.

A former employee who had owned an advertising agency sold it and, on a whim, went to work for Trader Joe’s with the intent of writing a book. Mark Gardiner became a “crew member” as employees are called but resigned before he published his book knowing the secretive company would fire him.  His book, “Build a Brand Like Trader Joe’s” reveals what Gardiner believes to be the success factors of this remarkable and loved company. (The drum roll please!) Here they are:

  • They only hire friendly people with relationship-oriented personalities (okay, that makes sense but why doesn’t everyone do it?)
  • When you ask for help you are not pointed without emotion to aisle seven, half way down on the right. The crew member, with a smile, walks you to the product, picks it up for you and even gives you details about the product. Before the crew member leaves, he/she offers further assistance.
  • If you don’t like what you bought you can return it at any time, no questions asked for a full “cash” refund.
  • They pay above average wages and offer solid benefits to employees (Yes, that’s right, employees are treated like customers!  Crazy idea!)
  • There are no automatic checkout lines (Yes, you have to talk with friendly people! Going to Trader Joe’s is like going to meet a friend).
  • They encourage interaction with customers.  If you are stocking a shelf you stop what you are doing to assist customers.

Okay, let’s simplify all of this to one thing, “The customer is treated like the most important person in the world while in the store.” I know, too simple, there must be more to it.

Actually…not!

Ken Blanchard, the famous business writer and consultant said it best, “Just having satisfied customers isn’t good enough anymore. If you really want a booming business, you have to create raving fans.”

In today’s world, happy customers are your best source of new business, are more powerful that any advertising campaign, and will allow you to grow your business with the greatest profit margin. Happy employees make all this happen! When Circuit City decided to cut staff to save money and cut salaries, they were bankrupt in two years. One of the most powerful brands in the world, Sears, followed the same path and they are on their last breath.

The simplest truths always prevail, put your customer first and the rest falls in place. There is no magic formula, only magical people who go the extra mile and truly care about others.  Look for these people and hire them! You won’t be sorry! (by the way, give these magical people the right to make decisions on the spot to help customers) Are you ready to invest? Me too!

Cow Fixer Vs. Herd Health Veterinarian? BEEF Vet Examines Production Medicine

Production medicine is part of every-day veterinary medicine. As the veterinarian, you should always be thinking about the clients total operation. Are you a cow fixer or a herd health veterinarian. There is a big difference.” — W. Mark Hilton

Wes Ishmael | May 25, 2013

Production medicine—melding animal health and veterinary care into animal production management—is beyond infancy, but it’s far from losing all its teeth.

“The concept of cow-calf production medicine is still relatively young and still evolving,” says Terry Engelken, DVM, a professor of production medicine at Iowa State University, focusing on the cow-calf and feedlot sectors. “It requires paradigm shifts on the part of the producer and the veterinarian. The producer has to come to the realization that their veterinarian has more to offer than just being a ‘cow mechanic’ and the veterinarian has to understand how to collect and analyze economically important factors that impact profitability.”

Though Dr. Engelken sees slow, steady growth over time, it seems acceptance and use of production medicine is scattered, more client-dependent than size-dependent.

In California, for instance, John Maas, DVM, Extension Veterinarian at the University of California-Davis says it’s a mixed bag. There are progressive practitioners working with progressive cow-calf producers to improve profit potential. There are also producers who view veterinarians as folks who douse emergencies, and veterinarians content to provide only those fire-engine practice kinds of services.

“It’s been one of those things you would think common sense and good business suggest we would have evolved to by now,” Dr. Maas says.

Figuring out the business model of providing production medicine services continues to stall some.

Russ Daly, DVM, Extension Veterinarian at South Dakota State University, believes producers recognize the value of veterinarians and the information they provide. He also knows veterinarians who want to provide production management service to clients. For the most part, though, he says, “In this state, I’m not sure that we’ve found a good way for veterinarians to capture that value, which works for the client as well.”

As for W. Mark Hilton, DVM, it’s impossible to think about production management without considering the animal health side of it and vice versa. Dr. Hilton is a clinical professor in food animal production medicine at Purdue University. He also founded and owns Midwest Beef Cattle Consultants, which many regard as a poster child for how to work with clients in partnership rather than a buyer and seller of specific services.

“Growing up, our veterinarian helped us. He fixed things, but he’d also show us something else that could help us,” Dr. Hilton says. “Production medicine is part of every-day veterinary medicine. As the veterinarian, you should always be thinking about the client’s total operation.”

Dr. Engelken concurs.

“I disagree with those who say that production medicine skills are separate from individual animal medicine, surgery, or palpation skills in a cow-calf practice,” Dr. Engelken says. “I think they are very intertwined in that unless you can exhibit a high level of competency in these areas, you probably won’t build enough trust with the producer to provide consulting services. These skills are also absolutely critical to being able to collect the baseline production numbers that you need to be able to provide consultative services to the client.”

“Are you a ‘cow fixer’ or a ‘herd health veterinarian’?” Dr. Hilton asks, “There is a big difference.”

Herd-Specific Data is the Foundation

For one, Dr. Engelken explains, “Record keeping and data analysis must come into play if you are ever going to get this type of service off the ground. You can’t benchmark performance if the appropriate numbers aren’t being recorded, and that first step can be a real challenge. You have to think about what output parameters you want to evaluate and then make sure you are getting those numbers captured. Then, it becomes a question of identifying the magnitude of losses and what areas the client needs help with. Are those losses associated with cattle disease, herd management, or a combination of both?”

“Production medicine is more of a mind-set of how you do things, and the most important thing that we can do is find the weak links in the production chain,” Dr. Hilton says. “We want to find the most important factors that are hindering a farm’s success.”

In that effort, Dr. Hilton encourages veterinarians to focus on four production goals: decrease production cost; increase the value of production sold; doing both of these with less labor; and maintain or enhance animal welfare.

“I’m a fan of individual cow records,” Dr. Hilton says. “Producers are surprised how consistent individual cow production is from year to year.” With records, clients can see that a cow weaning a calf 25 percent lighter than the herd average this year will likely produce one of similar caliber next year, and the year after. Dr. Engelken points out that the records portion of cow-calf enterprises is less standardized and more challenging to ferret out than in other sectors like feedlots, stocker operations, dairy and swine.

“Your opportunities to generate production or economic numbers are really driven by specific events that occur during the annual production cycle,” Dr. Engelken explains. “These events include calving, calf processing, going to grass, weaning, pregnancy check, etc. You aren’t typically generating input/output numbers on a daily basis like producers in other animal enterprises. These events may be separated by several months (start of breeding until preg-check) or they may occur over a relatively long period of time (the calving or breeding season), which makes data collection and interpretation more difficult. Secondly, in cow-calf practice, veterinarians are often the ones collecting the data since they will be the ones on the ranch as these production events occur. This data may take the form of reproductive information, calf performance numbers, and animal health performance.”

The next step is at least as essential.

Once this data is collected, the important thing is that it is economically relevant to the operation and that it is converted into information that the practitioner and client can use to identify problems and make corrective management decisions,” Dr. Engelken says. “I believe that’s when information has economic value to the producer. This value is improved over time as economically important management changes are continually identified, documented, and benchmarked.”

cattle feed additives

Areas Of Impact

Any area of production that drives a substantial amount of production output or input invites examination.

For Dr. Engelken, three key areas jump to mind: data based evaluation and the benchmarking of reproductive performance over time; nutritional management to control the cost of supplemental feed; herd health design and maintenance.

“Reproductive performance drives the bus on the income side of the equation and has to be closely monitored,”

Dr. Engelken says. “However, when you look at the differences in profitability between beef operations, you will find much more variation in input costs than you do in revenue generated. Since the largest component of cash costs deals with supplemental feeding, it is only natural that our profession should be involved in evaluation of the nutritional program and cattle feeding practices.”

Likewise, Dr. Hilton says, “Nutritional consulting has provided our clients with the best return on investment. Feed costs are up tremendously over the past five years and our herds that have kept feed cost from rising at the national average are doing much better financially than those that are average or above. I have heard from veterinarians who have saved clients $30,000 in feed cost versus what they would have fed. Even simple ideas like allowing cows only 4-6 hours daily access to hay can save a producer over 30 percent of his hay cost, according to Purdue research.”

As for design and maintenance of the herd health program, Dr. Engelken says, “We are constantly bombarded with new ‘miracle cures’ that come from a syringe, in the form of antibiotics, vaccines, or mineral supplements. I think the practitioner plays a key role in helping producers understand what they need, and maybe just as importantly, what they don’t need. This also requires that diagnostic information be collected from both live animals and necropsies so that disease patterns on the farm can be monitored and herd health programs changed as needed. This is still at the heart of veterinary medicine.”

“Every herd has strengths and weaknesses, but if health is one weakness, it’s nearly impossible to have any real strengths,” Dr. Hilton says. “Think of all the problems that may occur subsequently if calves get sick at a very young age—increased death loss, lower weaning weights and rates, increased sickness and decreased growth in the feedlot, less replacement heifers for the herd, etc. Health is surely a huge impact on the total herd.”

Wrap it all together and Dr. Engelken says, “In our case, we continue to be involved in nutritional management, ration analysis, electronic record keeping, and evaluating reproductive performance. We also spend a fair amount of time evaluating options for our clients and using partial budgets to play ‘what if’ games and look at alternatives.

“Providing impartial science-based information is part of our job. Just simply due to the huge impact that reproductive performance has on ranch profitability, I guess it’s inevitable that we continue to look at estrus synch options, bull selection parameters, and the potential uses of gene markers. Having said that, we still do the traditional things such as palpations and disease management.”

It’s Hard To Pigeonhole Client Interest

As mentioned at the outset, producers of a particular size or in a particular part of the world aren’t necessarily more or less likely to be interested in a production medicine relationship. But there are indicators.

Where he sees successful production medicine relationships, Dr. Maas says, “Number one, the ranchers are business people, no matter the size of the herd. They’re 110 percent vested in the cattle business for their income or they have come to ranching from another business. They understand inputs, outputs, shrink, all of the things that affect their bottom line.”

When Dr. Engelken was on faculty at Mississippi State University, he worked with folks in the agricultural economics department to survey beef producers in the state. The aim was trying to identify practices, demographics and characteristics that defined various levels of management.

“Obviously herd size made an impact. The larger the herd, the more time the producer devoted to herd management. These producers also utilized their veterinarian more often,” Dr. Engelken explains. “However, factors such as client age, education level, the number of extension meetings attended, serving as an officer for a cattlemen’s group and participation in seedstock production affected their level of herd management, as well as how they interacted with their veterinarian.

“That is a point that I try to drive into our students: If you want to come into contact with producers who would be willing to use consultation services, then you need to understand the characteristics of those producers. Our graduate veterinarians need to be involved with the local cattlemen’s groups, extension programs, as well as organized veterinary medicine. They need to be able to identify larger operations (especially seedstock) that are being operated by younger individuals who have an animal science or ag economics degree.

“Those are the producers who understand the impact that our profession can have on their bottom line. However, there are also smaller operations that want to do things the right way and will actively seek out this type of service, even though their cow herd is not their primary source of income.”

Conversely, Dr. Maas believes veterinarians willing to proactively forge new relationships and strengthen existing ones tend to have the most success providing consulting that goes beyond fixing problems.

“Clients call to ask questions. That’s the point at which veterinarians need to begin relationships,” Dr. Maas believes. “Maybe someone calls to ask about a particular vaccine. Also tell them how to handle it and how it should be administered. Ask them if they’re BQA certified.” Dr. Maas says.

“Then, figure out a way to follow up to see how they got along, at no cost to them. Maybe that leads to a chat about how they develop their heifers or what genetics they use and why,” Dr. Maas says. “Invest your time and energy into follow-up, so they understand that you’re the kind of veterinarian who is interested in their operation, not just someone who’s there when there’s an emergency or when they have a question.”

Some will grab the invitation immediately and do their part to establish the relationship. Others never will.

“Dedication to relationship is the important thing,” Dr. Maas says.

“The bottom line is that there may only be 15-20 percent of clients that will be willing to pay for a complete consultative type of program (nutritional management, record keeping, breeding season evaluation, economic analysis, etc.),” Dr. Engelken says. “But, they have been my best clients because without fail, they have all made me a better veterinarian.”

How You Go About It

“The key is to establish credibility and gain trust,” Dr. Hilton says. “The client has to trust the veterinarian to do what is right for the client’s business. That trust comes from time spent working together and having some successes along the way. If I can solve a client’s calf scours problem then I have earned some credibility. Once I have credibility I get asked more questions about the beef business. I want to be the ‘go to’ person in their beef business. Half the time they have a question, I won’t know the answer, but that’s not a deal breaker. I know the people who can help answer that question. They are already on my ‘team’ because I have asked them questions before.”

Likewise, Dr. Engelken says, “It takes time and trust. We work for a client base that tends to be very conservative and risk averse. They want to feel comfortable that you can treat a sick animal and have it get better, that you can handle a dystocia and end up with a live cow and calf, that you have accurate palpation skills, and understand the importance of reproduction to their bottom line.”

A common characteristic Dr. Maas notes in the practitioners involved in these kinds of relationships is their passion for sharing information.

“These veterinarians are educators. They love what they’re doing. They love to educate, to teach, and they don’t feel like they have to do everything themselves. They’re happy to share their knowledge and don’t feel like they have secrets to guard,” Dr. Maas says.

If you’re looking for a more specific game plan, Dr. Hilton suggests, “Go to the client who asks you the most questions. Tell him or her you want to make a deal. You want to do more production medicine and want their herd to serve as the pilot. You’ll charge less because you’re learning, too.”

Then, Dr. Hilton says, “Let’s look at the goals for your herd, identify something I can help you with in the next year, a problem I can solve or help prevent, something that will make your life easier.”

For example, maybe the client says winter feed costs have gotten out of control. Even if you don’t feel like you have the nutritional expertise to solve the problem, Dr. Hilton stresses you know folks who can.

At the same time, don’t sell yourself short.

“Some of our veterinarians have tremendous expertise in nutrition. Others are very savvy on added value marketing programs,” Dr. Daly says. “They might not realize they have enough expertise to provide advice to clients, but they probably do.”

Incidentally, Dr. Daly sees genomics as an area where there is currently a void of understanding that veterinarians could help clients bridge.

Getting Paid For What You Know

None of this works, of course, unless veterinarians are paid enough to make production medicine worth their while. As alluded to earlier, some folks feel uncomfortable charging for information they’ve likely given away in the past.

Plus, it can be difficult for producers to assign value to information when it seems to be everywhere for free.

“You can get information from your neighbor, from the Internet, from university extensions,” Daly says. “I try to impart to producers that local, farm-specific information is more valuable than information they can get anywhere else.”

One step Dr. Daly sees some veterinarians making in such a transition is charging clients by the hour rather than for providing a particular service.

That’s how Dr. Hilton has long charged clients.

Rather than be tempted to try selling a client another product or service, by charging hourly, Dr. Hilton says you can try to talk them out of buying things to save money and add value.

“You do not have to sell something to someone to make a living,” Dr. Hilton says. “You do not have to do a procedure on an animal. Our most valuable asset is our brain. You have to charge for your knowledge.”

“We could argue about the definition of consulting as it applies to a cow-calf practice,” Dr. Engelken says. “I guess maybe the simplest definition is getting paid for what you know. That payment could take several forms such as a per head fee, a retainer, an hourly consulting fee, or even enjoying a high degree of client loyalty because you offer a higher level of service than other veterinarians in the area.”

Of course, there are few buyers for anything that dampens rather than grows the bottom line.

Veterinarians Must Bring Value

“In consulting, the goal is to always give the client value for the money they spend. If I charge someone $1,000 for consulting and it saves him $5,000, that is a win-win. If I charge $6,000 for that same result it is win-lose and the client will never spend money with me on consulting again,” Dr. Hilton says.

“The way that we marketed our program is that we explained to the owners that, really, this program was free,” Dr. Hilton says. “If, for example, the program was going to cost $8 per cow, per year, to be on the records and consultation part of our program, we would show them how they could make at least $8 more per cow in increased income. Then we would also show them how we would be able to save them at least $8 per cow in reduced expenses. We guaranteed the program would be cost effective to the owners IF they gave us their short and long term goals AND they implemented the changes we suggested.”

The program Dr. Hilton is referring to is the Total Beef Herd Health Program (TBHHP). He began it in 1988 when he started Midwest Beef Cattle Consultants. The program cornerstones are herd health, records, fertility, environment, marketing, genetics and nutrition.

“We examine the herd from a total herd view and make recommendations based on financial return,” Dr. Hilton explains. “Common concerns of herds I have visited in the past include: inadequate herd fertility, cows that do not fit their environment, lack of hybrid vigor, pasture conditions that are not optimum for production, excessive calf morbidity, etc. Although we see recurring trends in herds, each herd is quite unique in its strengths and weaknesses.”

Back to the beginning of the program.

“After looking at financial figures, many times the first year on the program produced significantly more than twice the client’s investment. We had herds that increased revenue up to eight times what they paid us for one year of the program, so that was very exciting,” Dr. Hilton says. “If you want to be a hero with your clients, in addition to helping them decrease their cost of production and increase the value of their product, have them do both with less hours of work devoted to the enterprise. Tell me who else has these goals for the producer? The answer is no one.”

Dr. Hilton cites other examples of veterinarians bringing added value to clients:

  •  Vets host an annual calving clinic to remind clients about when to call for assistance(progress every hour), what supplies they should have on hand, and provide a review of techniques on how to assist in delivery.
  •  Clinics help clients precondition calves with a uniform health program, then sort them into uniform load lots so client calves command higher prices.
  •  Vets assist cow-calf owners in formulating rations, utilizing corn and soybean coproducts to stretch winter feed resources and save significant money on winter cow feeding.

One vet organized some of his very best client herds to sell bred replacement females. After pregnancy check, the secretary at the clinic records all data in a spreadsheet and provides this to producers looking for heifers. The spreadsheet gets updated throughout the fall and winter as heifers are sold and others are added to the for sale list.

“Recently, a beef producer had some calves for sale. Last year he received a horrible price, given the quality of the calves. He asked another producer where he sold his calves. That producer told him, ‘My vet lined up a couple of potential buyers for me and I got top dollar.’”

The producer who received the lousy price contacted the veterinarian. The veterinarian stopped by to see the calves and called two buyers. The producer received a price he felt his calves merited.

“The producer then called the veterinarian about his calf scours problem. Long story, short, the veterinarian proposed a very good solution to the scours problem, started asking about nutrition and will be formulating all of that producer’s rations now,” Dr. Hilton explains. “The same producer also wants to enroll his herd in the veterinarian’s records program. The veterinarian has become the ‘go to’ person for that producer’s beef herd.”

Dr. Hilton asks students the most effective way to have success with clients in the future. He tells them it’s having success with clients today.

“You have to provide value,” Dr. Hilton says. “It’s got to make money for them. I want to be an asset to the client, not a liability.”

Moreover, Dr. Hilton emphasizes clients must drive.

“Clients have to tell you what they want. You can’t tell them what to do,” Dr. Hilton says. He learned that lesson the hard way early in his career. “I give them recommendations, the owner makes the decision. If they want to keep a late-calving cow, for instance, that’s their business.”

“You really have to pick and choose your opportunities to start production medicine programming,” Dr. Engelken says. “Rarely do you institute this massive consulting type relationship at one time; at least that has not been my experience. It seems like I have been more successful in starting with an obvious weak point such as heifer development or an animal health issue and then working in the rest of the program over a number of years. Some herds are more willing to adopt this type of relationship faster than others, but it takes time to build that trust account with the client.”

Though none of this is necessarily quick or easy, Dr. Hilton emphasizes that’s it’s not complicated.

“Let people know what you can do. Do it. Follow up. Keep asking clients what their goals are and then help them reach them,” Dr. Hilton says. “Veterinarians need to be more proactive in asking clients what they need from them. Clients need to demand more from their veterinarians than fixing problems.”

BeefTalk: Let the Cow Save You Money and the Bull Make You Money

By : Kris Ringwall, Beef Specialist

NDSU Extension

A recent conversation regarding economic drivers in the cow-calf enterprise left me with a lot to think about.

Let me summarize: The thoroughfare to consumers begins with the conception and birth of a calf that slowly morphs into beef. The beef industry is huge, so reflecting is good as the calf moves from the cow-calf producer to other beef enterprises throughout the beef chain.

Much like the source of a mighty river, at some point, only melting snow or raindrops were present. Mighty rivers do not become majestic if the snow does not melt or the rain does not fall. Everything starts somewhere, albeit small, and needs to grow. The cow-calf industry is no different.

Let us consider some thoughts regarding the cow-calf enterprise. Generally, the cow-calf producer has had some cushion between total expenses and market price (positive cash flow). Expenses, however, loom on the horizon as historically high, and given the relative low rates of return on investment, along with the challenges of finding adequate labor, some cattle producers are giving up the reins.

What steps can producers take to improve probability and, ultimately, return on investment? Almost anybody can buy a cow and bull, and produce a calf, but that is not the definition of a cow-calf enterprise. The operation needs to have some scale, and I usually review data that involve operations of 50 or more cows. But today, even 100 cows probably are below the threshold of “economy of scale.”

I will be the first to state loudly that the cow-calf business has many economic drivers, and “economy of scale” does not have to be one of them. Why? Cow producers like cows and enjoy the lifestyle of raising beef. But a positive cash flow will put more smiles on the producers’ faces.

That being said, how do we do that? Here are some thoughts.

First, recognize the environment one is in and quit fighting it. Building to beat Mother Nature is futile; feed the cows, breed the cows and calve the cows when the weather is right.

The weather is right when cool-season grasses are growing actively. As a consequence of calving when the grass grows, a shift occurs when the third trimester of pregnancy starts, creating the opportunity for alternative winter forage programs.

At the Dickinson Research Extension Center, we turn bulls out on Aug. 1. The third trimester starts Feb. 12, and calving starts May 7. Winter feeds costs, which are 70-plus percent of the total cow-calf costs, have the potential to decline significantly, depending on the extent that “extensive winter forage” is utilized.

Second, recognize the importance of monitoring cow size. The maintenance of excessively large cows has proven difficult to offset with increased weaning weights. The center has targeted mature cow size at 1,100 to 1,300 pounds. Although individual calf weights will be lighter, total calf weight based on calves produced per acre will be greater, resulting in more total pounds of calf.

Third, recognize the importance of good bull selection using technological advancements that improve accuracy. Generally, keep expected progeny differences (EPDs) above the 50th percentile within the desired traits and breed. As matter of practicality, become comfortable with bulls that are above the 50th percentile but may not exceed the upper 30th percentile for commercial production.

Fourth, recognize the value of breeding systems, maximizing the traits of interest in the terminal sire program while balancing appropriate traits on the maternal side. Let the cow save you money and the bull make you money.

At the center, 1,100- to 1,300-pound cows bred to bulls above the 50th percentile for growth and marbling and in the upper 10th percentile for rib-eye area have an advantage of $26 per acre of ranchland over traditional cows. The calves are summered on forage, and after a short feedlot stay, they are harvested at an average weight of 1,450 pounds, with 94 percent at the “choice” grade at an average yield grade of 2.9.

The search for the next generation of cow-calf producers has a tremendous opportunity for success, provided some simple targeted goals based on real numbers are put in place. Efficient beef production starts when the bull mates with a cow and biological efficiency mates with economic efficiency.

And just like the majestic river that starts with a few raindrops and a small stream, beef production needs to start with the cow-calf producer. Fishing in the big river may catch some big fish, but do not let fishing tales run the operation.

For new cow-calf producers, the single biggest mistake made is the tendency to work hard physically and set aside the homework. Each cow-calf enterprise is a unique business, and businesses need records. Focus, listen and learn.

May you find all your ear tags.