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How to get started with cattle recordkeeping

Terrell Miller for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 December 2019
Keeping records

It’s a new year, and with new years comes New Year’s resolutions. A frequent resolution among cattle producers is to start keeping better records on cattle, pastures, equipment and more.

Successful recordkeeping is about organizing all of your ranch-related information so everything you need to make effective decisions is up-to-date, organized in one place, and easily accessible by you and others on the ranch.

Types of records to track

When producers think of ranch recordkeeping, cattle records are always top of mind. Production records include breeding dates and pasture exposure dates, pregnancy checks and calving records. Performance records include weaning data, cow weights and body condition scores, and carcass data. Marketing records include purchases, sales and death loss.

But there’s more to ranch recordkeeping than just cattle records. There’s also equipment that have many details including models, part numbers, purchase information for accounting, and, of course, mileage and/or hours, and the maintenance history. Pastures have fertilizer and herbicide applications. A rainfall history can be helpful to evaluate pasture utilization and predict future needs. Today, many ranchers use smartphones and tablets to collaborate around the records, keep up with contacts, view commitments in their ranch calendar and manage task lists of to-do items.

Where to keep your records – paper, spreadsheets or software

Today, many producers use a combination of paper and digital technology to keep their cattle records.

Paper-based systems have little cost and are completely customizable. However, the major drawbacks are that they can be hard to read by others and offer no reporting or analytical capabilities. This leads to a common record-keeping frustration – producers spend a lot of time collecting and recording data but fail to see value in their efforts since they cannot generate needed management information for decision-making, reporting and tax preparation.

Spreadsheets remove some of the drawbacks of paper records by being easier to backup and because they are easier to share with others. While they can be useful for keeping a basic herd inventory with a few columns of information, many spreadsheets eventually turn into “spreadsheet spaghetti” that have data across multiple sheets, require lots of scrolling and utilize formulas.

Software and apps specifically designed for cattle management come at a slight financial cost, though that cost is more than offset, provided the producer uses the product. Cattle management software provides a structure for entering and organizing data in a format that facilitates reporting and analysis, as well as time saving.

Examples are the ability to enter data one time and have it applied to an entire group of cattle, recording an exposure date that creates breeding records and automatically calculates calving dates, and organizing financial information into reports at tax time. Many cattle management software programs come with a free trial period, providing an opportunity to enter some of your data and get a feel for how the system works and ensure you can achieve your reporting goals.

Step 1 – Gather all of your records in one place

Before you can begin organizing your information, it is important that all of your records are in one place so you don’t have to hunt for items later. This means getting the shoebox from your hall closet, picking up the slips of paper in the truck and sorting through the notes on your phone. Nothing gets the organization phase off track as quickly as finding out you don’t have everything in front of you, causing you to lose focus as you go on a scavenger hunt for information.

Step 2 – Recording current information

I’ve seen many producers with good intentions struggle with getting started with a new record-keeping system by doing things out of order. A common mistake is to start with a single cow and enter all of her details, including previous calves, weights, treatments etc. You can quickly find yourself spending 10 minutes or more searching for all of the details for a single cow. Eventually, you’ll grow tired of the data entry process before you can begin utilizing the records.

Instead, I’ve found it best to start with a basic inventory of animals on your place today – cows and bulls, then calves. By starting with an active inventory first, you can begin recording additional details such as color markings, birth dates, purchase information and pasture exposure dates. As you work your cattle, you can collect pregnancy status, weights and other notes.

Step 3 – Recording historical information

Only after you have an accurate and up-to-date inventory of active animals on your ranch should you begin entering historical data, as historical data is more helpful in reporting and analysis than day-to-day operations.

Recording historical data is a great project on a rainy or snowy day to keep productive on the ranch while avoiding the elements. The data entry of historical data is a bit more flexible in that you can enter data by each cow or by calf crop, whichever is easier, given your historical records.

Maintaining records of calves, including birth date, weaning weight, sale weight and sale price, can be beneficial for herd analysis. These values help with analyzing and comparing calf crops to previous years. Linking calves back to their dam can provide you with performance metrics for the cow, including her average calving interval, average postpartum interval and most probable producing ability.

Conclusion

Whether you are a husband-and-wife duo, a family operation with several generations or a manager of a team of cowboys, keeping everyone on the same page with a good record-keeping system can make life easier for everyone so you can all spend more time enjoying the ranching lifestyle. end mark

ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Corey Lewis.

Terrell Miller
  • Terrell Miller

  • Founder
  • Cattlesoft Inc.
  • Email Terrell Miller

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