Early marketing open cows frees up feed, increases profit
Cattle producers can potentially earn some extra profit and cut back feed expenses by pregnancy checking earlier, and marketing open cows sooner, according to a University of Nebraska Extension Educator.
“Early pregnancy detection in replacement heifers or in the cow herd is a tool producers can use to increase profit,” Aaron Berger said. “Traditionally, cows and replacement heifers are pregnancy tested in the fall of the year, and then open and cull cows are marketed at that time. This is traditionally the time of year when cull cow prices are at their lowest.”
Instead, Berger encourages cattle producers to consider pregnancy testing the animals sooner, and marketing the open cows in June, July and August when prices for cull cattle are at their highest. “The cow also starts losing her body condition score in late August when forage quality starts to decrease. I have found that a producer could potentially earn a profit of at least $100 more per head some years by marketing his open cows in August versus late-October,” he said.
In addition, by selling those cattle sooner, producers can save feed and other expenses that could be utilized elsewhere. “For ranches that calve cows in February, March and early April, there is an opportunity to market April and May calving cows at a premium compared to opens. For example, if the bulls are put with the cows May 15 through Aug. 15 for a 90-day breeding season, the cows could be pregnancy checked on Sept. 15 and the opens sold in September prior to the major price decline,” Berger said.
Fortunately for producers, early pregnancy testing options exist. “Pregnancy can be detected in cows as early as 30 days post breeding using ultrasound or blood tests,” Berger said. “For cows to be identified as pregnant utilizing palpation, cows often need to be at least 35-45 days pregnant. It is also important to have an experienced technician or veterinarian palpating the cows if pregnancy is to be detected that early.”
Which method a producer chooses depends on what information they want about the pregnancy. A blood test only tells if the cow is pregnant. It can be given as soon as 30 days post breeding, and is 99 percent accurate. Cows also need to be at least 90 days post-calving or some false positives may occur. “The advantage of this test is the rancher can pull the blood and send it to the laboratory for analysis. The disadvantage is the results aren’t immediate. The test has to be sent to a laboratory for evaluation and the results sent back, so producers would have to sort off their open cows at a later date,” Berger said.
The turnaround time from the day of pulling the sample to when open cows are identified and can be sorted off is typically two to four days including shipping time. However, the test is cheaper than either palpation or ultrasound. “This test also allows the rancher more flexibility since he can do the test himself,” Berger said.
An experienced technician or veterinarian may be able to palpate cows as early as 35-45 days. However, most veterinarians prefer to palpate cows when they are 50-60 days post breeding for a more accurate rate. “Some cows that are bred late may be called open depending upon the time of bull removal,” he said. A good technician palpating the cows may also be able to age the calves, in addition to determining if the cow is pregnant. There may be some embryonic loss from palpating the cows; however, results are immediate, and producers can sort off the open cows at the chute for marketing.
Some producers find it a challenge to locate a veterinarian experienced in palpation. “It is very important that they are accurate so producers can take advantage of the best marketing opportunities to sell their open cattle,” Berger said.
If the cows undergo ultrasound, producers will learn if the cow is pregnant, the age of the calf, and possibly the sex of the calf, which may be useful as a marketing technique. Berger said ultrasound can be performed as early as 28 days post breeding. By using ultrasound, technicians may also be able to identify cows carrying twins to allow the producer to make management decisions before the calves are born. “Ultrasound is less invasive than palpation, and producers will know the results immediately, so cows can be sorted at the chute. Ultrasound typically costs more than palpation, and has to be scheduled with an ultrasound technician or veterinarian,” he said.
Producers who AI their cattle may be able to detect pregnancy themselves at 60-days post breeding because they are used to handling the cow’s reproductive tract. “If they have one that is questionable, I would recommend following up with a blood test,” he said. ❖
— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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