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The Cost and Value of Open Cows

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Originally published in February 2017 Carolina Cattle Connection

Most readers are likely at the end of their calving periods at the print time of this article, with the exception of a few spring calving herds that may extend into March and April. Early fall calving herds are nearing pregnancy check, while later-calving herds are making breeding decisions. Regardless of management style and production calendar, we all have to make the call on cows that fail to breed or calve. These animals represent a liability to the business regardless of past production ability or their original purchase price because they will no produce income for the herd unless they are sold themselves.

An open cow also represents an opportunity to evaluate our management program. While her direct value lies in the price she will bring at market, she could also provide additional value that can improve our entire herd. In some cases, a cow can fail to conceive or carry because of deficits in our ability to manage her. The open pen should be analyzed closely for trends that indicate a problem.

Body condition should be tracked throughout the production cycle and plotted against major production points like calving, breeding, preg check, and weaning. If there are swings in body condition greater than 2 scores on a particular cow’s production year, one should be concerned about that animal’s fit into our program, or, conversely, our ability to meet that cow’s needs.

Tracking cow age is important as well. My dad often tells me that old isn’t a disease, and I try to remember that when I am evaluating cows for clients. An individual cow can certainly be a productive member of the herd for many years, but not every cow will be able to do that. If the open pen has an over-representation of aged cows, a producer may consider evaluating the average culling age in their herd. That being said, young cows come up open more often in my practice either at preg check or at calving. These 2 and 3 year old animals represent some of the most stressed individuals in the herd and experience the largest risk of failure. If the open pen is overwhelmingly young, the producer should evaluate the heifer selection program and nutritional program for opportunities to improve.

Open animals can also represent problems with the health of the herd. While an infectious cause of reproductive failure would be less common than other reasons, it is still worthy of consideration. If an infectious agent is suspected, the open animals may represent the best chance to diagnose the problem and should be evaluated promptly by your veterinarian. Unfortunately, by the time most animals are evaluated as open, the ability to effectively diagnose the causative agent is often greatly diminished. Hence, watching animals closely for signs of reproductive failure is paramount for the veterinarian’s ability to effectively diagnose a problem. Certain pathogens can set up shop in the organ systems of infected cows and would potentially represent a risk to unexposed cows at a later date. Removal of these animals is obviously recommended for the future productivity and fertility of the herd. Similarly, effective vaccination for production-limiting diseases such as IBR, BVD, Leptospirosis, and Vibriosis is important for herd reproductive success and prevention of infectious causes of open cows.

It should not be forgotten that the bull may have some culpability for open cows as well. To a small extent, genetic selection can affect reproductive success. Extreme trait selection, indifference to crossing defect-carrying breeding stock, or use of outdated genetics can lead to reproductive failures. To a much larger extent, bull fertility loss resultant from injuries, lack of libido (sex drive), diminished testicular volume or function, or bull:cow ratio imbalance can lead to open cows. It is important to understand how many cows an individual bull should be expected to impregnate. A good rule of thumb is 1 cow per month of age of the bull starting at 15-18 months. This rule only pertains to situations where nutrition is adequate to support the bull’s body condition during the breeding season. Beyond appropriate management strategies, bull breeding soundness exams are the best way to assess a bull’s ability to breed cows.

Once a cow is found open and the situation is adequately evaluated, the producer must then decide what to do with her. The simple answer is that she should be culled from the herd. However, there are many herds or situations that may warrant further consideration. The decision to retain an animal that has failed to meet a herd benchmark is a complex one, and can have wide-reaching ramifications on herd efficiency and potentially health.

I advise my clients that to truly assess the feasibility of keeping an “open” cow, one needs to understand the actual cost of keeping the average cow in their herd for a year. If a cow produces an average calf in 2017, she will either make the operation a profit, breakeven on her maintenance costs, or potentially cost the operation. The main determinant of what she does from a profit/loss standpoint depends on market conditions. Return on investment per cow per year varies largely based on the market price received for calves, as well as the market value of the cow herself, which would be an opportunity cost (money you give up by not selling her). If calf prices are low and/or maintenance costs are high, it will be harder for that cow to return a profit. Much of that is out of the hands of the producer, and successful producers must both manage costs as well as add value to their product whenever possible. Following this line of thought, one can easily see that if the same cow does not produce a calf in 2017, she can only cost the operation money when she is held over.

Cowherd maintenance costs are represented by land costs (rent, taxes, opportunity cost of other uses), feed (mineral, hay, protein tubs, pasture fertilization or renovation, etc), health (vaccines, deworming, vet), breeding (bull, +/- AI), and miscellaneous (fuel, electricity, fencing, equipment maintenance and depreciation, etc). You will notice that my list doesn’t account for one of the most important costs: your time. In my practice, few clients actually pay themselves, so I have chosen to not include it here. However, I believe in a true appraisal of your operation, labor should be accounted for in the budget sheet. Your time is valuable! Feeding the cowherd represents the biggest cost to the operation, typically accounting for 60-80% of yearly costs. The best way to manage costs is in the cow feeding program but is not the category to skimp in. When it comes to cows being productive, everything we do to improve our herds hinges upon the nutritional program.

If the animal’s inherent value is greater than the costs she will incur in her off year, a producer may consider alternate production methods for the open. Multiple calving seasons are often employed on larger operations and cows that fail to calve in one season may transition into the next herd. High genetic merit females may enter assisted reproduction programs such as in vivo or in vitro embryo production. A cow that is retained must be properly assessed for any production-limiting issues prior to the decision being made to ensure the perpetuation of mismanagement or spread of herd-level problems will not occur.