Whole System Management of Reproduction in Beef Cattle

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Whole System Mangement of Beef Cattle Reproduction manual cover.Introduction

This publication presents a whole system approach to reproductive management of beef cattle, empowering cow-calf producers to use modern tools and proven management practices for the betterment of their land and livelihoods. Reproductive technologies such as estrus synchronization and artificial insemination are covered in detail with step-by-step pictures and explanations. Just as importantly, critical factors associated with nutrition, genetics, health, and management are outlined, so that reproduction is understood as a system process that requires thoughtful planning and adaptive management. By managing reproduction with a multiyear perspective and taking a whole system approach, producers can manage both proactively and reactively to achieve profitable, sustainable reproductive outcomes.

Managing reproduction

At its core, the aim of a cow-calf system is to efficiently produce marketable calves. Therefore, a cow-calf enterprise relies on reproductive efficiency of cows in the system. Although reproductive efficiency has been defined differently by many authors, the efficiency of any business stems from the product produced and the inputs required. Reproductive efficiency of a cow-calf operation is fundamentally related to the conversion of energy inputs into calf crop, and the vast majority of energy used by a cow-calf operation is associated with meeting the year-long requirements of cows in the system. With this understanding, cows maintained on the farm or ranch as units of production need to be productive, generating profitable calf value relative to their year-long carrying costs. Whether the calves produced are commercial cattle or the next generation of elite seedstock animals, the economic returns and sustainability of the operation depend upon this efficiency, which is largely dependent on reproduction.

A systems-based approach

In systems management, the components of the system are recognized to be complex and often incompletely understood. When attempting to conceptualize a system, it can be helpful to diagram its components and the relationships of the components within the system. Systems are often quite complex, with multiple interactions among components of the system.

A key feature of systems management is a strive for continual improvement of the quality of the system rather than simply seeking to improve or monitor the output of the system overall. It should be noted that this approach — focusing on system quality rather than production metrics — can feel counterintuitive! System quality often improves not by improving the average product of the system but by reducing the variability, or variance, of the output. Variability stemming from one component and variability stemming from another component generally compound, resulting in even greater variability overall. Improving the overall quality of the system is therefore a major priority.

In a whole system management approach, variability can be conceptualized as stemming from one of two broad categories: “special causes” or “common causes.” When pregnancy rates are reduced compared to an average season, producers often seek to identify a special cause: a specific uncontrollable issue or set of issues that might explain the poor results. From a systems perspective, however, it is far more likely that the poor results stem from one or more common causes: issues that are inherent sources of variation within the system and ultimately could be under the control of management.

The realization that poor results stem primarily from common causes  —  issues management could control — should be empowering rather than discouraging. Identifying the underlying factors resulting in variability within a system allows these factors to be better managed. As a result, factors that were once challenges become leverage points to improve the overall quality of the system and, ultimately, the results the system produces.

Reproductive technologies

When we think of the word “technology,” we often think of modern electronic gadgets like the cell phone or the self-driving car. Yet while all of these inventions are forms of technology, the word technology actually has a much deeper meaning. For example, use of fire is actually considered one of the first technologies employed by human beings. Fire, the combustion of flammable material, is a purely natural process that no one invented. However, strategically harnessing the power of fire to cook food is a technology that shaped human history and society — arguably more than any other. What then is technology?

Technology is derived from the ancient Greek tekhne, meaning one’s skill in an art or craft, and logos, which refers to reason, rationality, and intelligence. When used together in the word technology, tekhne and logos represent a kind of intersection between the concrete and the abstract — a fusion of skilled action and thoughtful purpose. One definition that may be useful is “systematic application of knowledge for practical purposes.” When understood this way, use of reproductive technology in cattle is not just about the use of pharmaceutical products or other tools of modern science. Rather, reproductive technology is the systematic application of our knowledge about reproductive biology for the practical purpose of cow-calf production.

As with use the use of fire for cooking, reproductive technologies often involve use of natural processes rather than inventions. Cow-calf operations can achieve a number of desired reproductive outcomes simply through thoughtful management of nutrition, length of the breeding season, strategic culling, wise replacement selection, and management of other components of the system. Ultimately, achieving optimal results with reproductive tools like artificial insemination requires understanding and management of the whole system.

Context is key

No tool has value in and of itself. Tools only have value when they are used in the right context. Consider, for example, that fire can be used to cook a meal or to burn down a building! Context is key. How then does one decide whether to use specific tools of modern science, such as estrus synchronization, artificial insemination, or embryo transfer? In deciding whether to use a specific tool for a specific purpose, cow-calf managers have to consider the whole system under their management. What does the farm, ranch, or cow herd need to be like in the future? Does the tool in question address the root cause of a problem? Does it address a major weakness in the system? Is it the best, most profitable investment of time, money, and energy? What are the long-term effects? These are just a few of the questions to consider when choosing to use any tool, and reproductive tools are no exception.

Most cow-calf enterprises are underutilizing reproductive tools because the decisions made about reproduction are not being made in the context of the whole system under management. Short-sighted decision-making often causes us to fail to recognize the extent of what is under our management and the complex interconnectedness of the various parts of the system. All too often, reproduction is only front-of-mind for cow-calf managers during the breeding season itself, and tools and year-long management practices that could generate long-term value simply go unused. A more systematic approach and a proactive, adaptive planning process is needed to realize the value associated with reproductive technologies.

Make a multiyear commitment

Unfortunately, factors affecting reproductive performance are multiplicative rather than additive. This means that problems actually mask successes, rather than vice versa. An operation than turns in infertile bulls or mishandles semen during an artificial insemination program will generate poor pregnancy rates, even if the operation did an exceptional job managing cow nutrition and herd health. Because problems with reproductive efficiency of beef cattle are multifactorial, there is rarely ever a single “silver bullet” solution. Improving reproductive efficiency requires system-level solutions, and this will require a multiyear commitment.

Reproductive management of beef cattle is too often viewed as the result of only the present year. However, most common causes of variability in pregnancy rates are best understood as carryover effects from multiple years of management. A multiyear commitment is needed to address causes of suboptimal reproductive performance, as one year simply represents far too narrow of a window of time within the overall beef cattle production cycle to effect change. With a multiyear commitment to ever-improving quality of the overall system, reproductive outcomes will improve steadily and approach the biological maximum for the herd.

Table of contents

Reproductive management

Nutrition and reproduction

Anatomy and physiology

Estrus synchronization

Semen handling and artificial insemination

Genetics