New Year’s Resolutions for a successful Cow/Calf Enterprise in 2015 and beyond

For most in the cattle business, 2014 has been one of the best years you have ever had.  We started the year off with strong prices and they just kept going, for the most part the weather was pretty decent; although a few spots were dry through the summer months, fall rains brought the grass back to life and put some hope in the heart, and we have all had an excellent fall/early winter as far as the weather goes.

Often times when things are going as they are right now, it is easy to fall into a rut and get a little lax in our management style when in reality that is when we should be stepping out on a limb and working towards improvement for the future when margins might be a little leaner.  Look at the cropping situation for example, things have been quite well for grain crop producers for the last few years and they have used that to leverage themselves for the future with updated technology in areas such as machinery and plant genetics to improve efficiency as well as improving marketing strategies for leaner times that always seem to come sooner rather than later.  Cattle men and women can do the same thing; herd genetics, land utilization and marketing strategies are a few good examples.  Here a few things that cow calf producers should consider in the coming months to make the most of this year as well as better position themselves for tomorrow.  Let’s take this opportunity to briefly discuss a few things to consider throughout 2015 to better position our cow/ calf operations for the future.

Look at your winter feeding expenses: For many cow/calf operations, costs surrounding winter feeding of the cow herd are a big chunk of overall costs for the entire year.  Winter feeding costs are also the category of expenses that has the most variance between operations from top to bottom in profitability, meaning that for most of us there is some room for improvement.  Everyone realizes that it costs a lot of money to produce or buy and feed hay, however, many just chalk it up as a necessary evil and keep on going business as usual.

Improving pasture utilization could very well be a key to improved profitability in the future.  As land prices continue to rise along with the costs of growing, harvesting and feeding hay, working toward getting more out of what you already have is going to remain important.  Taking steps such as subdividing pastures to increase pasture utilization and stockpiling of pasture for winter grazing could very well hold the key to increased profitability.  Take a look at how many months out of the year you are feeding hay on a regular basis and ask yourself “What can I do to make my grass get me further into the winter?”  In general, grazing standing forage is the cheapest way to feed the herd.

Standing cool season grass usually has adequate levels of protein and energy to meet the requirements of any animal with minimal trace mineral supplementation.  Costs associated with supplementing poor quality hay are another sore spot in the profitability of cow/calf operations.  Work toward matching the quality of hay you feed to the needs of the animal you are feeding.  This requires knowing the quality of your forage and the nutritional requirements of the herd.  I would encourage you to sort the hay you are feeding into groups by type and cutting date and then test each hay pile so you know just what you have.  Justin Sexten, State Beef Nutrition Specialist once said “If you aren’t testing your hay then you aren’t serious about cutting your feed costs.”  He went on to suggest that it takes as little as 200 cow days to pay for the cost of testing your hay.  This means that if you feed 1 cow it will take 200 days of feeding to pay for it, however, if you feed 200 head it will only take 1 day of feeding to justify the cost.

Weed out problem cows: The national cow herd is currently the smallest it has been in over 60 years.  That along with demand for beef products has driven cull cow prices for slaughter to record high levels.  Use this to your advantage and get rid of cows at that don’t fit your program.  Open cows, those that don’t wean a good calf and those with attitude problems should all be considered for culling.  Granted, it is difficult to consider replacing those cows with young replacements priced the way they are right now but it costs about the same to carry a productive cow as it does a poor one and replacing those nonproductive females with cows that will produce is a strategic move towards a better herd in the future.

Some may not have a clue of which cows have had a calf when and just how well her calf performed.  Developing a better identification and record keeping system is a good place to start.  It doesn’t need to be elaborate or expensive to be effective but it does have to have meaning to you the producer.  The “Red Book” is a good place to start with record keeping.  It is inexpensive and available through most extension offices and some feed dealers.  As for guidelines, we want a cow to calve every 365 days and produce an acceptable calf at weaning.

Invest in Genetics: Let’s switch gears and talk about bulls.  Today, we have a world of information available on registered seedstock. DNA and Artificial Insemination technology have brought us leaps and bounds with producing predictable, high performing bulls in the last 10 years.  Looking at and using EPD’s are a big part of that improvement as well.  When looking at bulls, look at the EPD profile and select bulls that will compliment your herd and goals.  Look at conformation as well; a poorly structured bull will not hold up and could very well pass those issues along to his calves.  It is a good idea to write down your philosophy and plan and stick with it.

Bull prices have been at all-time highs along with every other class of cattle.  Semen prices on the other hand have remained relatively stable.  Now might be a good time to consider using Artificial Insemination as a way to improve your herd.  Synchronization protocols have taken a lot of the work out of AI and simplified the process and maintained a success rate of 60-70%.  A big side benefit of embracing AI and synchronization is consistency of the calf crop.  Having 60-70% of your cows conceive on the same day tightens up the calving window making for a more even set of calves at weaning time and consistency sells.

Work towards a healthy herd: Over the last several months, calves have easily been bringing over $1000 per head.  Losing a single calf or even having one get sick and lag behind the rest can get expensive at prices like that. Work with your veterinary to develop a herd health plan that will reduce losses associated with sick calves.  A comprehensive herd health plan will involve a vaccination plan, maintaining proper nutrition within the herd, and good management in general.

Develop a marketing plan: Traditionally, cow/calf producers have been “price takers” meaning they take their calf crop to a sale facility and get whatever the buyers are willing to pay.  This will always hold true for many producers.  Today there are options available to help with pricing and if you are going the extra mile to produce a quality product, you owe it to yourself to try and get a better price for your calves.  Information and a good reputation sell.  Take advantage of programs available to sell your calf crop based upon vaccination protocol, feeding practices, or herd genetics.  Although it is not a guarantee, it improves your odds of getting a better price.

Retaining ownership of those calves through the feedlot and onto the rail can open more avenues if you are willing to try it. Although traditionally reserved for producers who could put together large lots of cattle, programs such as the MO Steer Feedout and Quality Beef by the Numbers have allowed smaller producers to pool cattle together and get information back as well as add a marketing alternative.  With lower feed costs and higher cattle like we are seeing now, it might be an option to consider for at least part of your calves in 2015.

All indicators suggest that the cattle market will remain strong throughout 2015.  Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that it will shake out that way.  Regardless of what happens, working towards better management and investing in the areas of feed costs, herd quality, animal health now will help out in the good times and make you shine in the not so good times.  It is a never ending task and we are aiming at a moving target so it is difficult.  There are people and resources available to help with decision making and give advice.  We have a good team in MU Extension that is here to help you with making improvements in your operation.  Work with them, your vet, and others to develop a team approach for advice and guidance.

Source: Andy McCorkill, Livestock Specialist