Boosting the Profitability of Your Cow Herd through Efficient Reproduction

cows and large calves in a pasture
The number one priority for cow-calf ranchers should be providing the management needed to wean calves from 90% or more of the cows in a herd on an annual basis. Simply said, but challenging to accomplish, as this is one of the key determining factors for profitability of a cow-calf operation. Cattle from Bar L Ranch, Marianna. Credit: Becky Mills, Cuthbert, GA.


Welcome to 2024!  The last three years have been especially challenging for cattle ranchers.  In 2020, the world stopped due to a strange new disease, COVID19, that forced restaurants to temporarily close, conferences to be canceled, schools to send kids home, and cattle markets to plummet with reduced domestic sales.  2021 was a year when things started getting back to normal, but then input costs skyrocketed up while cattle prices lagged behind.  In 2023, cattle prices improved and input costs stabilized, but then the rain shut off only to return in December when it was too late to grow much forage.  So if you have hung on to your beef herd through the last three years, congratulations.  You are a survivor.  My hope is that 2024 and 2025 will be the years that cattle ranchers in the Florida Panhandle can do more than survive but can start to thrive again.

Of course,  thriving in the cattle business must include profitability.  Profitability can be broken down into three key categories of ranch management:  Input Costs, Production, and Marketing.  Certainly there are ways to manage costs, and even enhance the price received for cattle to some degree, however, the area that ranchers have the most control of is optimizing production.  I found a very interesting article, Reproduction’s Impact on Beef Cattle Herd Profitability, that was written by Andrew Griffith and Justin Rheinhart, Extension Specialists, University of Tennessee.  This article struck a cord, because it goes well with what the planning team was thinking when we selected the focus for the 2024 Beef Cattle Conference this year, which is “Calculated Investment to Add Value to Your Beef Cattle Herd.”  At this event, speakers will focus on genetic selection, pasture management, as well as adding value to cattle sales.  This article, however, will focus on boosting cattle herd productivity to improve profitability through practical management of reproduction.

There are a number of factors that affect the efficiency of reproduction, with fertility and nutrition at the top of the list.  Cattle nutrition is a whole topic unto itself that I may tackle in a future article.  Cattle reproduction is pretty simple to talk about but challanging to manage.  It is simple because we only need to supply sound and healthy bulls (or AI) when the cows are cycling again after calving.  Simple enough, but there is a whole lot of management required for this to be successful in the time frame needed to be profitable.  This simple act of annual rebreeding is the great challenge of cow-calf herd management.  If a cow is going to calve every 365 days, she only has 82 days to cycle and breed again, because cows are pregnant around 283 days (range is 279 to 287 days).  Cows cycle every 21 days, so that means in a 90-day breeding season, cows will be in heat ready to breed at most five times.  As I previously mentioned, nutrition plays a huge role in this system, because reproduction (cycling) is the lowest priority system for the cow.  Instead her body is focused on maintenance, recovery from pregnancy and calving, and producing milk to feed her current calf.  This is why it is so vital that cows are in a good body condition score (BCS) of 5 or higher before calving.  As the old adage goes, “You can’t starve a profit out of cow!”  Nutrition is vital for reproduction to take place in a timely matter.

BCS 5 cow diagram
Path of assessment for all six body condition scoring points on the cow, starting at the brisket and proceeding to the ribs, back, hooks, pins, and tailhead. The circle indicates the last rib on this cow, revealing a body condition score (BCS) of 5. Source: How to Measure Body Condition Score in Florida Beef Cattle, Matt Hersom, UF/IFAS

The article from Tennessee was so powerful because it provides a summary of the economic value of nutrition and reproduction management done right.  The researchers compared the profits from a 50-cow beef herd with varying levels of success from their herd management in 2020.  That cattle prices used in this comparison were based on the 10-year average prices (2010-2019) with a cost production expense of $600 per cow, in 2020.

Improving Weaning Rate

The first variable the research team compared was the weaning rate.  You hear people discussing pregnancy rates most often when they are talking about evaluating herd reproduction, in part because it is measured generally in a very short period of time, for a 50-cow herd likely all tested the same day.  Whether you utilize a veterinarian, a trained ultrasound or palpation technician, or blood sampling for a lab,  pregnancy diagnosis is a very important tool to track the reproduction efficiency of a herd, but the number that really matters most to your bottom line is the percentage of cows exposed to a bull that provided weaned calves for sale, or the weaning rate. Weaning rate includes the pregnancy percentage but also takes in other variables, primarily calf survival from birth to weaning.

In the Table 2 above, the 50-head herd had production expenses of ~$600 and a revenue of ~$700 with a 88% weaning rate of 88%.  The results shown indicate that a 4% increase in the weaning rate provided a boost to the net income per cow by ~$30/head, so for the entire herd that was a $1,487 improvement in net income.  For this 50-head herd that equates to 46 live calves to sell versus 44. Updating these numbers to last summer, when many folks in this area were marketing weaned calves, a #1  500-pound calf in Alabama sold for $1,215 (June 16, 2023 – 527 lbs. #1 steers = $2.50/lb. or a total of $1,318/head, and 475 lbs.#1 heifers = $2.34 or a total of $1,112 =  average of $1,215).  In a more current market , the revenue increase from 46 calves versus 44 would be $2,430 higher with a 4% improvement in weaning rate for a 50 head herd.  Just keep in mind that input costs were much higher too for the calves sold last summer.  This is easy math though, no matter the current market situation, having more weaned calves to sell provides a boost to herd net income.

Improving Calving Distribution

The other variable the researchers in Tennessee compared was when calves were born during the calving season.  The example 50-head herd had a 90-day breeding season, with a distribution of 40% born in the first month, 35% in the 2nd month, and 25% in the final month.  Table 3 provides a comparison of this herd with three different calving distributions.

Table 3 shows that getting half of the calves born in the first month could boost net income by $9 per cow.  Where does this difference come from?  Older calves weigh more, and in this study the team used 2-lbs./day to adjust the weights and prices for the calves in the two scenarios, assuming the calves were all weaned and sold on the same date.  Is it possible to have 25 calves born the first month instead of 20?  The answer is yes, but it will require some level of investment in nutrition to ensure more cows are cycling early in the breeding season.  Cows are not the only part of the equation, as we also need fertile bulls breeding the cows that come in heat, with high enough libido to cover the entire herd.  We know that cows in BCS 5, with herd synchronization and artificial insemination will result in 50% or more of the cows bred through timed AI.  So, it is possible to even get around half of the calves born withing the first week of calving season.  In the example provided from this study, they generated over $9 in income/cow just because the calves were older at weaning time.  Again easy math, older calves at weaning weigh more and generate more income, if calves are weaned and sold at the same time.  Even if the heifer calves are kept for replacements, having more older calves to select from is a positive benefit.

Bottom Line

The authors of the Tennessee Extension publication said, “The take home message is that weaning rate and calving distribution can significantly influence returns to an operation. It is important to institute cost effective practices to increase the weaning rate and to have a higher percentage of calves born earlier in the calving season to positively influence returns to the operation.”  There are several key elements that must be considered.  The following are some steps worth considering to improve your management of cattle herd production.

  1. Do you have a defined breeding season? 
    A consistent and well defined breeding season is the first step to managing reproduction efficiently in your herd.  If you don’t currently have a breeding season, you will need to gradually work on creating a defined season, but not in a single year.  The UF/IFAS publication – Converting the Beef Cow Herd to a Controlled Breeding Season is a helpful resource for this process.  In this publication, the authors recommend taking four years to reduce the breeding season from 365 to 90 days.  With this change you will have opened numerous doors that will help you better manage the nutrition, health, and reproduction of your herd.  The entire herd can be treated as one unit with a consistent management calendar.
  2. Do you have records to benchmark your current level of production?
    You can’t manage what you don’t measure.  If you currently don’t have a record keeping system, I developed a very basic system for use in a notebook with hand written records that you can access on the following web page:  Florida Beef Cattle Ranch Record Book.  You can even utilize the pocket notebooks that NCBA currently sells for $8 each – NCBA Redbooks.  The problem with the pocket notebooks is that they are only designed for annual records.  The more complex computer software options make sorting records and record analysis much easier.  The following is a link to an Oklahoma Extension 2022 article that provides links to many different options of computer software for cow-calf herd records: Cow-Calf Production Record Software.  Record keeping alone will not make a difference, as you must do ranch analysis to develop some benchmarks to develop goals for your operation.  However, you have to know your current weaning rate and calving distribution to set goals for improvement.
  3. Do you know your production costs?
    Performance records alone are not enough, because you also have to know your costs to make meaningful decisions.  If you fertilize more pasture acres or feed more supplement per cow, you have to measure the return on investment to make the progress.  If we keep cows in good flesh we can improve the reproductive efficiency of a herd, but there is a point of diminishing returns.  If your herd is already performing at a high rate, It may be that in today’s economy with higher input costs, improving your weaning rate and calving distribution costs too much.  The bottom line here is that management changes have to be cost effective.  You can’t know that without tracking costs on a per unit basis:  $/cow, $/ton of feed, $/pound of TDN, etc.
  4. Did you know there are resource people that can help with this process?
    In Florida, we are very fortunate to have a team of professionals that are willing able to help you develop an efficient production plan for your operation.  Start by contacting your local extension office to find out who the experts are in your area.  There are state extension specialists, large animal veterinarians, AI supply and feed company representatives, nutritionists, and other professionals that can assist with developing a plan to improve the production from your herd.

There are a wide range of technologies that can be used to boost the performance of your herd in the future.  With fewer cow numbers nationwide, cattle prices should remain strong for at least the next two years.  This is a good time to evaluate where you are currently and where you want to go, so you can once again thrive instead of focusing solely on survival.  I am not saying this is the time to erratically throw money into your cow herd, but there should be a real opportunity over the next few years to improve profitability, if you can fine-tune your management to optimize the production output from your cow herd.

Andrew P. Griffith, Associate Professor and Extension Specialist, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, Justin D. Rhinehart, Associate Professor and Extension Beef Cattle Specialist, Department of Animal Science. University of Tennessee.  Reproduction’s Impact on Beef Cattle Herd Profitability.  W 973 January 2021

Mario Binelli, Thiago Martins, Tim Wilson, Cindy Sanders, Mark Warren, Matt Hersom, and Curt Lacy.  Converting the Beef Cow Herd to a Controlled Breeding Season.  UF/IFAS Extension.  AN267.  January 20th, 2023

Courtney Bir, Brent Ladd. Cow-Calf Production Record Software.  August 2022.  Oklahoma Extension

Matt Hersom and Todd Thrift, How to Measure Body Condition Score in Florida Beef Cattle, , UF/IFAS Extension AN347.  September 2018

Doug Mayo, Cliff Lamb, Mark Mauldin, Ann Blount, Cheryl Mackowiak, Jose Dubeux, Jay Ferrell, Jennifer Bearden, Nicolas DiLorenzo, Shep Eubanks, Jed Dillard, Mike Goodchild, Roy Carter, Henry Grant, John Atkins, and Kalyn Waters.  Panhandle Ag Team Cattle & Forage Management Calendar.  April 2016 (Updated March 2022).  UF/IFAS Panhandle Ag Extension Team

Posted: January 29, 2024

Category: Agriculture, Livestock

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