Tools for environmental challenge

Source: Farm Progress. The original article is posted here.

Tools for environmental challenge

Patrick Wall, ISU extension beef specialist

As I write this, the state of Iowa is receiving much needed rainfall in some areas, while other parts of the state wish the faucet would turn off for a bit to get the crop in the ground. Pastures look ‘happier’ than they did last fall, and nothing soothes the heart more than frolicking calves on lush, green grass. That said, we’re a long way from a third cutting of hay. No doubt, there will be challenges headed our way; this article focuses on preparing to manage them before they occur.

The markets have been indicating for some time now that cull cow beef is in demand. In other words, unproductive cows have never been worth more money. Recent estimates of the current size of the US cow herd also indicate that producers have been taking advantage of a strong cull cow market…though in most cases, not by choice. As producers try to expand the herd, here are a few simple management tools to consider.

Manage forage first – This sounds overly simplistic, but your pasture doesn’t know that feeder cattle are worth $3 a pound. Regardless of the market conditions, your land base still has to support the number of muzzles chomping grass every day. A windshield assessment of Iowa pastures would certainly indicate that cow numbers are a bit over-stocked, especially given the rainfall we’ve seen in the past 24 months. With grain markets relaxed from previous years, the opportunity to expand your forage plan makes economic sense. Chop more acres of corn silage, plant cereal rye behind it, seed some poorer soil to a summer annual crop, soil test and fertilize hay acres. If you make these decisions now and it does rain , then you’re in position to expand. If your forage plan remains unchanged, rainfall becomes the driver in your management plan.

Early pregnancy diagnosis with ultrasound – Quite simply, if your vet doesn’t know how to do this, find one who can. The most ideal time is day 50-75 of pregnancy, also the perfect time to sex the fetus if you are interested in collecting that information as well. Go longer than day 75, and the fetus can often be out of reach for the ultrasound machine to pick up…or just the length of the arm on the person running it. Many producers use tag colors to indicate gestation length, right ear for heifer embryo, left ear for bull embryo, etc. This will not only help you sort up groups when it’s time to calve them out, it can also help you decide which cows go on the cull list should feed resources become scarce. If you don’t plan to expand the herd, sell the later bred heifer pregnancies since bull/steer calves bring more money. If you’re in expansion mode, sell the bull pregnancies and keep cows that will likely produce a replacement heifer.

Don’t pull the bull – You might have noticed in the previous paragraph I didn’t say anything about culling everything that was open at early pregnancy check. Cows are really good property right now, and though she might not be perfect for your desired environment, she could be just what another producer is looking to find. Bred cows are traditionally worth more than open cows, and your herd bulls would like the opportunity. If you have ample feed, study the markets on what month of the year is the most lucrative market for their due date. Keep in mind, the ideal market may be 300 miles away where it rained more. For example, a South Dakota rancher may love to calve in late April, sell him those cows in January. Replace them with a group of synch A.I. bred heifers from a reputation herd in your area, all bred to calve February 1. Obviously, you’ll probably have to own those before the late breds leave for SD. However, in this scenario, your cowherd can maintain or expand while simplifying your calving management at the same time.

For many producers, "expanding the herd" simply means they are calving more cows than they did the previous year, which includes the bad attitudes, poor udders, bad feet, and late bred cows that should have left anyway. Every bred heifer that turned up pregnant gets to stay, and within a year, you have a 6-month calving window. The weaned calf groups get sorted down to numbers that no longer demand a premium. Vaccination programs are harder to follow, herd bulls don’t have time to bounce back, the list goes on.

According to the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, a 1,350-pound cull cow in good flesh is worth about $1,850 this week in Iowa. A yearling replacement heifer calf is worth about the same amount. Both markets look to remain strong over the next year. An open cow and a yearling heifer offer you the same amount of return over the next 12 months…$0. The heifer will consume considerably less than the cow, extending your forage supply. Some management responses to environmental challenges are more subtle than others.

Price is not the biggest challenge in the current market, so the environment will largely determine our success rate. Make management decisions now that will allow you to adapt to environmental challenges later on. This should also put you in a better position to not only capture the market peaks, but also endure the less favorable price swings.

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