It’s Time to Get Serious About Reproduction and Genetics

John F. Grimes, OSU Extension Beef Coordinator (originally published in the Expo 2019 issue of The Ohio Cattleman)

The first quarter of any calendar year is an important time for most commercial cow-calf producers. If it has not started already, calving season will begin soon. Shortly after the onset of calving season, decisions must be made in regards to breeding season. Management choices in the areas of reproduction and genetics made during this timeframe can certainly influence a cow-calf operation for years to come.

Regardless of whether you use a natural service sire or artificial insemination in your breeding program, there is little justification for a lengthy breeding season. A 60-day breeding season is an ideal goal to shoot for and I would recommend nothing longer than 90 days. If you are currently involved in a longer breeding season, there are valid economic and management reasons to make a change. It requires a little discipline, some rigid culling, and a willingness to use technology and other resources available.

Nearly every management decision associated with the cowherd is simplified with a shorter calving season. Herd health, nutritional, and reproductive management are much easier when all cows are in a similar stage of production. Restricting the breeding season to 60 to 90 days will produce a more uniform calf crop that enhances marketing opportunities. It is easier to match up your forage supply with the nutritional demands of your herd when all animals are in a similar production cycle. Vaccination programs are more effective when animals in the breeding herd are in a similar reproductive status.

A more concentrated calving season is important for the smaller or part-time producers who have major time restrictions in their daily lives. I do not know of any producer that enjoys the stress and worry of calving season over an extended period. This is especially true if calving season comes during inclement weather and you are away from the farm for long stretches of time during an average day.

A shorter calving season will eventually lead to greater efficiencies in reproduction rates. Palpate shortly after the conclusion of the breeding season and cull heifers and cows that do not conceive within your given calving season and do not look back. Keep daughters of the cows that are bred early each calving season. If necessary, buy bred females that calve within your desired window to replace the open females. Implementation of these practices will certainly improve your herd’s reproductive performance over time.

As an Extension professional and a seedstock producer, one of the most interesting discussions I can have with a producer is reviewing their thoughts on what they are looking for in a potential purchase for a herd sire. Obviously, there is a wide range of criteria to be considered depending on the production goals and size of the herd. In my experience, a few very consistent themes emerge with discussions on a potential herd bull purchase: calving ease, disposition, and price.

While calving ease is extremely important, I believe there is a tendency for the typical Ohio herd owner to overemphasize calving ease across the entire herd. The average cowherd in Ohio numbers approximately 17 head with most herds retaining some number of replacement heifers to add to the herd. Herds of this size usually work with one herd sire to cover both mature cows and yearling heifers. If you choose herd sire with the proper calving ease for the heifers, he should also possess enough quality in the traits of importance such as growth and carcass merit for the mature cows.

I do not know of any commercial cow-calf producers that want to deal with disposition issues with a herd sire or a member of the cowherd. Good disposition becomes an increasing priority given the fact the average age of the cow-calf producer has increased over time. Raising beef cattle has enough challenges that you should not have to tolerate poor dispositions in the herd.

This brings us to the subject of price. It should be the goal of every cow-calf producer to purchase the best possible bull that fits within a determined budget. I realize that philosophy would result in a wide range of bull prices amongst producers. A rule of thumb that I have often heard for many years is that the value of a typical herd bull should be equal to the value of two to three market steers or three to five feeder calves at weaning. There are exceptions to these guidelines but an above average bull that excels for traits such as calving ease, growth, carcass traits, etc. will likely demand a premium.

I would like to offer a few suggestions for producers as they search for their next herd sire.

  1. Establish the production goals for your herd and select a sire that compliments the needs of your cowherd.
  2. Use EPDs, actual performance data, and Selection Indexes to identify outstanding sire prospects.
  3. Never buy a bull without a Breeding Soundness Examination.
  4. Select the appropriate age and size that matches the number of cows to be bred. A time-honored rule-of-thumb is to place about the same number of cows or heifers with a young bull as his age is in months. Putting too many cows with too young of a bull is a recipe for open cows.
  5. A bull that can increase the number of live calves born, add growth, and increase the maternal strength of a herd through daughters retained should be viewed as a sound investment.
  6. A low-cost bull that may not excel in traits of importance may be purchased just to get cows bred and does little to add to the profitability of the herd. This bull is little more than a “cow settler.”

The rapid expansion of the nation’s beef cowherd over the past five years has presented today’s producer with some unique economic dynamics. Prices for all classes of beef have moderated from the record-high levels of the middle of this decade. This means that quality bred heifers or young cows can be purchased at prices that are more reasonable. You should also be able to purchase a higher quality herd sire for similar historical prices. The current economics also dictate that you must be less tolerant of poor reproductive performance and you must cull the herd accordingly. Serious consideration of reproduction and genetic management decisions can pay dividends for years to come.