Cattle markets are setting new records, feed costs are falling, and cattlemen are anxious to stabilize and rebuild numbers. Forecasted profits for the cow/calf producer are the highest they have been in decades. While I would like to end this column right here and tell you all to go buy a new pickup, I am a realist.
There is a limiting factor to your success in this forgiving market. You need calves. Yes, no matter how high the price goes or how cheap you can buy hay... you need calves. Thus, reproduction becomes the major limiting factor.
Reproduction is sensitive to many contributing factors. The biggest factor, in my opinion, is body condition score. Cows that are in adequate body condition score at calving (BCS 5, 6, 7) will have greater success breeding than thin cows. Good conditioned cows also have better success breeding early in the season.
Producers can improve conception rates on thin cows by getting them gaining weight. Thin cows that are not gaining or losing weight will likely fall out of the herd. Normally, I would suggest those cows are not fit for your environment and they need culled anyway; however, this winter has caused cows to use more energy reserves to battle harsh temperatures and thus those cows just need some extra groceries through the breeding season.
Some other factors that can influence reproduction are cow size, milk production, lush spring pastures, and lack of heterosis.
Since 1980, slaughter weights have increased over 25%. The American Angus Association stated that the average 7 year-old Angus cow weighs 1394 pounds. The genetic trends for YW and $B have been increasing linearly. These facts paint the picture that cow size is growing.
Heavier cows come with higher nutrient requirements. Notice that is said "heavier" and not "bigger." I think it is fair to say frame size has not changed proportional to weight, thus today's genetics allow us to pack more pounds on that same frame. This is positive genetic improvement in effort to supply more beef with less cows, however do not miss the increased inputs required to keep heavier cows.
Following a similar trend to growth traits is milk production. More milk production increases maintenance requirement year around. Just another additive factor to the level of nutrition these heavier, higher milk females require. I am a believer in genetic progress. However, selecting for maximum production can come at a cost. I believe milk production has a "sweet spot" and that more is not necessarily better.
Another suspect that may be robbing conception rates is post breeding nutrition. In many cases, cows are bred on lush spring pasture. This grass is wet (20-25% DM) and can fail to meet the DM requirements of larger cows. This can result in a moderate weight loss that is hard to detect and can be silently lowering your conception rates. I would suggest transitioning cows to lush forage by offering a few pounds of grain (3-4lbs/hd/d) until grass hardens.
For the commercial producer, a lack in heterosis may be contributing to breeding season problems. Traits that are low in heritability like fertility are best improved by crossbreeding. Crossbreeding research shows a 6-10% increase in 1st service conception and calves weaned per cow. Up to a 30% improvement can be made in longevity and calf wt./cow exposed due to crossbreeding. For commercial producers having issues with breeding, crossbreeding can be a big help in resolving the issue.
Many times cows are bred and then hauled to pasture. The timing of when hauling occurs can impact conception rates. It is recommended that cattle be hauled within 4 days of breeding or wait until 45 days post breeding. The period in between (days 5-45) corresponds with embryo implantation. Stressors in this time frame can cause the embryo to fail to implant and the pregnancy can be lost.
The opportunity is real. The cattle business is experiencing exciting times. However, producers need to remain focused on managing their herds. Monitoring feed costs while still ensuring cows are in adequate body condition is crucial to getting cows to breed back. Focusing on getting cows bred back will yield a high reward as we embark on uncharted cattle prices.