Current Progressive Cattle digital edition

Beef industry must tackle the drop in reproduction rate

Jim McGrann Published on 22 December 2011

The decline in the U.S. cattle inventory is well documented. The decline has sharpened particularly over the past 10 years and continued through 2011.

At the same time, total beef production has been maintained by an increase in carcass weights (see Table 1).

The reproduction rate of the cow herd has not increased the past 20 years and has tended to decline the past 10 years.

This article’s figures and tables provide the data behind the trend in beef production. One general observation is that sector data show change is very slow.

Geographic diversification, the long production cycle and small part-time herd structure contributes to the slow change.

The increase in beef production is a result of feedyard cattle being fed to heavier weights. It’s noteworthy that all classes of cattle carcass weights have increased including culled cows and bulls (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Average carcass weight, federally inspected.

Beef cattle genetic change has focused on growth and sector data reflect how this has led to heavier carcasses.

During the same two 10-year time periods, carcass weight for all cattle harvested increased 8 percent – cow carcasses 11 percent. Calf slaughter has decreased to where calf slaughter accounts for less than 3 percent of cattle slaughter.

Dividing beef production by the number of cows and using this number to say cow productivity has increased is wrong, as cow reproduction has not improved.

Other than the fact that cull cows are heavier, the cow-calf and dairy sectors have not improved the industry beef production efficiency.

The cattle inventory reproduction change over time can be observed in the calving rate and extraction or slaughter rate for the total cattle inventory.

The USDA calves born data (called calf crop) do not measure reproduction or a weaned calf crop based on exposed females.

Calving rates reported here are the calves born during the year divided by January 1 inventory of cows and heifers calving.

The average has been 89.7 percent for 20 years. The last 10 years’ calving rate averaged 88.9 percent and is in a declining trend (see Table 1).

Table 1: Cattle sector inventory and productivity.

The extraction rate for the total inventory provides the same indication that reproduction is not improving.

The small increase in extraction rate is likely due to shorter production cycles and increase in slaughter with the decline in cattle inventory. The difference between the highest extraction rates in the last 10 years is 3 percent (32.2 and 35.2).

The calving rate and extraction rate are not adjusted by live cattle for imports. Thus, these cow inventory productivity rates are a bit overstated.

In the past 10 years net imports are approximately 2 million head or 6 percent of annual slaughter. Incorporating this adjustment in date does not change the conclusions on reproduction rate change.

Unproductive beef cows

In many of the beef cattle herds, 15 to 20 percent of exposed cows and replacement heifers do not wean calves annually.

Dairy herds, although using repeated A.I. inseminations, have low reproduction rates. USDA data-based calculated calving rate and the extraction rate are good indicators that change in reproduction has not taken place at the producer level.

There is limited ranch-level beef cattle reproduction information that is derived from reconciled inventory data and based on females exposed as defined by the Standardized Performance Analysis (SPA).

Table 2: Texas cow-calf SPA from 431 herds, 1991-2009

SPA data from Texas (Table 2) over the years showed 81 to 83 percent weaning rate. In the Texas Gulf and Florida, SPA data show it’s in the 70 to 75 percent range.

The question is: How to improve weaning rates in beef cattle in different production regions? I have observed very poor reproduction in seedstock herds, where breeders seldom select for fertility.

Selection of genetics for growth is likely contributing to declining reproduction. The majority of beef cattle producers are not measuring weaning rates based on exposed females, so data are lacking on reproduction based on exposed females.

Just think what you could do for the beef industry if you could find ways to raise the weaning rate 5 percent.

Based on 40 million cows, this would be approximately two million 750-pound carcasses, producing 1.5 million pounds of beef to meet a growing export market and recovery of domestic consumption.

Finding solutions begins by measuring performance and recognizing there are many beef cows and exposed heifers that are not annually producing a weaned calf.

Finding management-driven opportunities for improvement

  • Improve the pregnancy rate. This objective must be the focus in all cow-calf herds.
  • Improve grazing systems. This gives the beef cow herd competitive position in production. Low reproduction most frequently can be linked back to nutrition.
  • Implement a complete herd health program. It’s cost-effective, as health costs account for fewer than 5 percent of total costs in cow-calf herds.
  • Health programs improve the weaned rate – reduce pregnancy and calving losses and reduce death losses between weaning to cattle finishing.
  • Select and manage to increase the longevity or productive lives of cows – reducing the required replacement rate for breeding females.
  • Growth genetics and feeding practices have resulted in an increase in carcass weights. The question is: Can beef cattle selection and change in breeding systems increase cow reproduction?
  • Increasing cattle reproduction takes a dedicated system or holistic management approach. It takes superior management to achieve the reproductive potential of a beef cattle herd.

Facing the challenge

  • Those who do not measure reproduction performance are destined to make the same mistakes or miss the same opportunity for improvement.
  • Measuring performance is often difficult because it is a measure of accountability. Failure to measure also means success is not revealed.
  • The truth hurts. Top managers find solutions and achieve improvement by facing the truth.

Increasing carcass weights

The impact of the potential to increase beef production by increasing carcass weight cannot be discounted.

An increase in carcass weight of one pound on 35 million head of slaughter cattle produces the same beef as increasing the harvest of 50,000 head of cattle producing 700-pound carcasses.

At current inventory beef production rates (622 pounds per cow – the last 10-year average), it would take 56,270 additional cows to produce the same amount of beef as increasing average carcass weight one pound.

Implications are that higher carcass weight means fewer cows are needed. The question is: How far can increasing carcass weights carry the industry?

The beef industry future

If beef production does not increase, then per capita consumption will continue to decline and beef exports will be constrained.

Profitability, return on investment (ROI), the incentive to rebuild the beef cow herd in this high-cost production environment is determined by reproduction, weaned calves based on exposed cows and calf price. Increasing carcass weights has a limit to maintain or increase beef production.

There needs to be a focus on improving reproduction by all those involved in the industry. Put those 15 to 20 percent of non-producing cows in many herds to work.

Improved reproduction would mean beef could be provided to consumers at a lower cost to be more competitive with poultry and expanded export. Improved reproduction can make the sector a profitable growth industry rather than a declining industry.

Logic would direct efforts to south Texas, Florida and other low-reproduction areas to find ways to improve total herd reproduction. These are areas where there are more unproductive cows with greater potential for improvement.  end_mark

Dr. Jim M. McGrann is an extension specialist emeritus from Texas A&M.

jim mcgrann

 Jim McGrann

Ranch Management Economist