Numbers matter: you can’t manage what you don’t measure

Most producers would rather be out working with their cattle than doing paperwork. As a result, the act of collecting, maintaining and using records often takes a back seat to other efforts around the ranch. However, I believe that on some herds, the limitations of herd records is a major obstacle to making genetic advances and in some cases, a lack of record keeping may even limit profitability.

I see a variety of record-keeping systems and they range from almost non-existent to sophisticated computer programs.

Producers can do a lot with a simple calving book or spreadsheet program, but there are some great software programs that will work on smartphones or tablets that will do many calculations automatically.

There are four major categories of production that we want to keep track of with our record keeping system. These are the GOLD indicators. The acronym GOLD stands for Growth, Open rate, Length of the calving season, and Death loss.

Regardless of which system of record keeping you use, it will provide only limited benefits without having individual ID numbers along with owning a scale to weigh your weaned calves individually. Herd level analysis provides some benefits but to really improve production, records on an individual cow level are required.

Eventually, with multiple years of data, you can benchmark your cow herd’s performance and compare an individual animal’s productivity to the herd average.

Individual weights on calves at weaning will allow a producer to properly evaluate the Growth category and to discover which cows are the best at raising calves in the herd. Having calf birth weights will also be useful but these can be estimated with various tape measures if weighing newborn calves with a scale is not convenient.

Most herds already use some kind of ear-tag system along with the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency RFID tags. Many of the new software programs allow producers to use an ear-tag scanner to scan the cow or calf’s tag directly into the program when weighing calves.

Weighing your calves at weaning and at birth allow you to calculate measurements such as adjusted weaning weights that manage for the calf’s birth date, gender and even the age of the cow.

Reproductive categories such as open rate and length of the calving season can be calculated on a herd basis and don’t require individual animal identifications.

One of the most important and cost-effective records that a producer can keep are those that describe the herd calving distribution. The arrival of new calves can be tabulated at regular intervals and a calving distribution can be created. This profile of accumulated calvings is critical because it is the only easily accessible physiologic event in the life of a commercial beef cow that can easily be recorded.

This data is easily graphed and it is customary to use 21-day periods with which to tabulate the number of calves born. The goal is to have 65 percent of the herd to calve in the first 21-day period. An alternative to the calving distribution is the median calving date, which can also be easily calculated.

The time from the first calf being born to when half of the cows have calved is the median calving date. The goal is to have 50 percent of the herd calved by Day 18 of the calving season.

The calf crop percentage is another important overall measurement of biological productivity in the cow-calf herd. It reflects overall management of reproduction and calf mortality. It requires only simple inventories.

Calf crop percentage = Number of calves weaned/number of cows exposed to bulls (or artificial insemination) for breeding.

The minimum target for calf crop percentage would be 85 percent. In more sophisticated record-keeping herds where weaning weights are recorded, the actual kilogram s or pounds of calf weaned per cow exposed to the bull can be determined. The optimal level for this variable depends on breed (cow size) and on the cost of production per cow.

Heifer selection can be based on real data rather than a quick look at an animal in the alley. Ultimately, linking carcass data of the offspring to the cow will provide even more potential for genetic improvement. There are already herds in Western Canada using these tools. The ability to record phenotypic traits such as carcass data, weaning weights and reproductive events are the first stepping stone to using other genomic tools.

The dairy industry has made huge progress in genetics through organizations such as the Dairy Herd Improvement Association.

There are a variety of software programs available for cow-calf producers that will help improve record-keeping and data-based decision making. Some of these have been developed right here in Western Canada and they range in cost from free, to programs that require yearly registration fees.

Talk to a veterinarian or local livestock consultant to learn about these tools. With a strong data management system, producers will be able to better make sound decisions on the reproductive, production and financial status of their herds.

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