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Optimizing reproductive efficiency at the core of herd management

Cows and calves in a grassy field in front of a low sun.

A large aspect of successful herd management is reproductive efficiency, for without it, herd investments and input costs control the balance of power, placing extensive pressure on a cow/calf operation.

When breeding programs run into challenges, many times females remain open, and those that do conceive, may or may not carry to term and deliver a calf. Sires may be insufficient in both numbers and capabilities, breeding programs may become inconsistent and vaccination protocols can come into question. Calves might be born in limited numbers, at random times, or not at all, and those that are born may exhibit weakness, lack vigour, experience health challenges and have reduced weaning weights.

To overcome these obstacles, the value of thoughtful planning and diligent preparation for a breeding season and what follows should never be underestimated. 

Additionally, it’s important to balance attention across several variables. Reproduction doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and as such, considerations need to include the bulls, progeny, climate, location, nutrition, genetics and pathogens, along with many other factors.

Establish the foundation with nutrition 

As a starting point, nutrition is one of the foundations of any productive aspect of an animal’s life. Feed should be of reasonable quality and quantity to provide the required nutrients for maintenance of health and vitality, plus the fertility of both genders.

As an example, yearling bulls purchased the year prior could lack proper body condition due to inadequate wintering, feeding management or grouping with mature bulls who don’t require the same rations for weight and maintenance. Age variable groupings may also invite damaging social status repercussions, dropping younger animals lower in the pecking order. As yearlings are still growing, any of these negative features can hinder reproductive efficiency. 

Mapping a reproductive health program

Health questions such as Bovine Viral Diarrhea (BVD), leptospirosis, vibriosis and Infectious Bovine Rhinotracheitis (IBR) are additional factors that should be considered and planned for by mapping out an inclusive and structured health vaccination program targeting improved conception and calving rates.

“These are all disease challenges we can vaccinate for to help prevent early fetal absorption or failure of conception,” says Shaun Sweiger, DVM, MS, TELUS Agriculture. “This is extremely valuable and vitally important in the case of open herds where operations have brought in new replacements, or bulls who could be asymptomatic carriers of these pathogens.”

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Make bull power suit the situation

On the sire side of the equation, bull to female ratios are key. Planning and preparation shouldn’t masquerade as simply dividing the total group by a preordained number, like 25, to decide on a bull battery. The ratio is never straightforward, but affected by numerous circumstances including terrain, climate, the environment, and age. 

“In a compact pasture with a winding creek and lots of grass, 40 cows with one bull could work,” Sweiger says. “But in sparse, tough, dry terrain, where they have to cover expansive ground just to find 40 females, it’s too much.”

Additionally, reproductive success depends on age. Dropping a yearling with a group of 30 females is too large a demand, as is asking two yearlings and two matures to cover 100 cows. 

“With groups like this, 95 percent may be pregnant in a two-cycle breeding period, but when we check parentage, most are covered by the mature animals due to pecking order and social structure intimidation,” Sweiger says.

Artificial insemination (AI) and synchronization programs

The benefits of using AI are substantial. More calves are born early in the calving season. The result can be a more uniform and heavier calf crop at weaning. The cows may benefit from a longer rest period before getting rebred. A variety of different bulls and breeds may also be used to achieve your breeding objectives.

The critical factors for success are planning your AI program in advance, performing all program steps carefully, keeping good records and monitoring the outcome. Make sure to work with your consulting veterinarian to assist you and support you with management tools to get this job done.

Consultation for producer support

Producers face many diverse factors when striving to improve reproductive efficiency, often becoming overwhelmed by the necessary considerations. To assist with the decision-making process, individual cattle management programs, such as TELUS Animal Record Management, deliver unique tracking, ranking analytics and production information. Programs, such as this one from TELUS Agriculture, can provide insights and assist in planning and preparing for successful breeding, gestation and calving seasons to help advance health and productivity of herds.  

“It’s extremely valuable to have the data to carry out an effective strategy,” Sweiger adds. “With solid information and individual records such as which bulls were added and when, when AI’ing was completed, all alongside calving lists prepared from this information, the chances of a successful breeding strategy increase dramatically.”

Measuring for reproductive success

Even with the most careful planning, it can be hard to confirm exactly what data moves the profitability needle as inputs and marketing trends constantly fluctuate and impact margins. What data collection and analysis will provide enough value to trump the labour, costs and time expenditures required to gather them?

Sweiger believes both pregnancy and calving rates are key components of efficiency measurements.

Expanding on simple confirmation of pregnancy, calving rates provide a larger view of the overall picture.

“The difference is, how many of those cows carried to term?” he asks. “Some confirmed pregnant in the fall, fail to calve in the spring. Reproductive issues such as nutrition, toxins or moldy feed, or early fetal absorption due to pathogens we didn’t vaccinate against, may be the cause.”

Calving intervals also play a large role as it’s desirable that the majority give birth during the first cycle or 21 days of the calving period. Recording this data is extremely useful for future reference.

“If very few calve in the first 21 days and then momentum builds during the second and third cycle, it’s a flag for reproductive inefficiency,” Sweiger stresses. “In these cases, we need to look at nutrition, bull power, pathogens and venereal diseases, etc.”

Recording aspects such as calf vigour and subsequent health issues through to weaning are also important, as their details fill in larger sections of the story. Conception rates might be relatively high, but if calves are born weak and without vigour, this can quickly dovetail into poor immunity and more serious health concerns such as scours and pneumonia. 

Sweiger explains these problems may result from influences like inadequate nutritional rations due to inferior forages, or vitamin and mineral deficiencies causing poor body conditions in pregnant cows. These circumstances lower colostrum qualities affecting immunity levels.

“Further down the road, if we want to measure reproductive success, we’ll look at pounds of calf weaned per pregnant cow,” he says. “But the holy grail is pounds of calf weaned per exposed cow. If we reach a high number here, we’re doing a lot of things right.”

It’s not simply about conception and pregnancy. Many factors can negatively affect reproductive success. Not enough calving in the first cycle leads to smaller and younger calves at weaning. Nutritional deficiencies and pathogen challenges deliver sickly or stunted calves who don’t grow as they should.

All of these factors contribute to a data collection program’s value for tracking details. Subsequently, an average value should be compared over time. With a reduced weaning weight per exposed cow it’s vital to monitor improvements such as changes in nutrition, vaccines, management or bull power, for signs of measured success.

“Essentially, when we examine all the aspects of reproduction like nutrition, bulls, vaccination, etc. it doesn’t amount to anything if we don’t achieve a live calf,” Sweiger stresses. “Reproduction in cattle is number one, trumping everything else.”

Contributed by Bruce Derksen, freelance writer

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