Preparing Cows for Breeding

– Dr. Les Anderson, Beef Extension Specialist, University of Kentucky

A successful breeding season actually begins with management decisions made at calving. Cattlemen can impact rebreeding efficiency by focusing on body condition score (BCS), early assistance during calving difficulty, scheduling a breeding soundness exam for the herd sires, planning their herd reproductive health program, and developing a plan to regulate estrus in their first-calf heifers and late-calving cows.

Reproductive management begins with evaluation and management of BCS. Body condition score is a numerical estimation of the amount of fat on the cow’s body. Body condition score ranges from 1-9; 1 is emaciated while 9 is extremely obese. A change in a single BCS (i.e. 4-5) is usually associated with about a 75 pound change in body weight. Evaluation of BCS prior to calving and from calving to breeding is important to ensure reproductive success.

Rebreeding performance of cows is greatly influenced by BCS at calving. Cows that are thin (BCS < 5) at calving take longer to resume estrous cycles and therefore are delayed in their ability to rebreed. Research has clearly demonstrated that as precalving BCS decreases, the number of days from one calving to the next (calving interval) increases in beef cows. Females with a precalving BCS of less than 5 tend to have production cycles greater than 1 year. For example, cows with a precalving BCS of 3 would be expected to have a calving interval of approximately 400 days, while a cow with a precalving BCS of 6 would have a calving interval of approximately 360 days. South Dakota research illustrates the influence of precalving BCS on the percentage of cows that initiated estrous cycles after calving. This experiment demonstrated that the percentage of thin cows that were cycling in the first month of the breeding season (June) was considerably lower than for cows that were in more moderate body condition. During the second month of the breeding season, 55% of the cows with a BCS of 4 had still not initiated estrous cycles, while more than 90% of the cows in more moderate condition had begun to cycle. Thin cows need a longer breeding season, which results in more open cows in the fall. They may also result in lighter calves to sell the next year because the calves from these thin cows will be born later in the calving season.

Management of BCS after calving also impacts rebreeding efficiency. Maintenance requirements for energy and protein increase 25-30% for most beef cows after calving. Ranchers need to plan their supplementation to match or exceed this increased nutrient requirement. Rebreeding efficiency is enhanced in cows that calved thin if their energy intake is increased. Although the best management plan is to calve cows in a BCS of 5+, increasing the energy to cows that are thin at calving can boost reproductive performance.

Dystocia (calving problems) can severely delay the onset of estrus after calving. Research shows that for every hour a female is in stage 2 active labor there is a 4 day delay in the resumption of estrous cycles after calving. Early intervention helps; 16% more cows conceived when cows were assisted within 90 minutes of the start of calving. The best method is to reduce the incidence of dystocia via selection but early calving assistance will increase the opportunity of cows to rebreed.

One often overlooked management tool that can improve reproductive performance is breeding soundness exams in bulls. Ranchers need to think of breeding soundness exams as breeding season insurance. These exams are a low-cost method of insuring that your bull is not infertile. Bulls should be examined for breeding soundness about 30 days before they are turned out.

I have worked in reproductive management for nearly 20 years and it amazes me how many cattlemen still do not vaccinate their cow herd against reproductive diseases. Several diseases are associated with reproductive loss (lepto, BVD, vibrio, trich, etc). The main problem is that most reproductive loss due to disease is subtle and ranchers don’t notice the loss unless they have a massive failure. Most cattlemen are not aware of their losses due to abortion. Ranchers need to work with their local veterinarian to develop an annual vaccination plan to enhance reproductive success.

Lastly, ranchers need to develop a plan to enhance the rebreeding potential of their first-calf heifers and late-calving cows. Young cows and late-calving cows have one characteristic in common that will greatly impact their reproductive success; anestrus. After each calving, cows undergo a period of time when they do not come into estrus. This anestrus period can be as short as 17 days but can also last as long as 150 days depending upon a number of factors. Typically, mature cows in good BCS will be anestrus for 45-90 days (avg about 60 days) while first-calf heifers will be in anestrus for 75-120 days. Research has shown that only 64% of mature cows have initiated estrous cycles about 70 day after calving while on 50% of first calf heifers have initiated estrous cycles at nearly 90 day after calving. Let’s consider the impact of anestrus and calving date for a herd that calves from March 1 until May 10. Bull turnout is May 20 and the length of anestrus for mature cows is 60 days and for young cows is 90 days. A mature cow that calves on March 1 will begin to cycle on May 1 and is highly likely to conceive early. However, the mature cow that calves on April 20 won’t cycle until June 20 and her opportunity to conceive early is very limited. A first-calf heifer that calves on April 20 won’t begin to cycle until July 20 and will have limited opportunities to conceive. Cattlemen can reduce the anestrous period by fence-line exposure to a mature bull or by treating the cows with progesterone for 7 days prior to bull exposure. Sources of progesterone include the feed additive melengestrol acetate (MGA) or an EAZI-Breed CIDR insert (Zoetis Animal Health). Both sources have been shown to induce estrus in anestrous cows and exposure of anestrous cows to progesterone for 7 days before bull exposure will not reduce fertility. Pregnancy rates will actually be increased in these females because inducing estrus will increase the number of opportunities these cows have to conceive in the breeding season.

Managing for reproductive success actually begins at calving. Cows need to calve with a minimum BCS of 5 and with little assistance. Effective planning for reproductive health and management plan for limiting the impact of anestrus will ensure that cattlemen are happy, happy, happy at the end of the breeding season.