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Making pregnancy checking work for you

Christopher Clark for Progressive Cattleman Published on 29 August 2018
beef cows in field

As the end of summer approaches, most beef cattle producers are very busy. They are recovering from county fairs and state fairs, sending kids back to school, making third-cutting hay, watching the weather and crop development, beginning to think about chopping silage, and the list could go on.

Cattle are out grazing, and assuming adequate moisture and no pinkeye outbreaks, they should be relatively self-sufficient for a while longer. It can be easy to delay pregnancy check appointments until later in the fall, perhaps even after harvest and well into winter. And, when the job has been delayed long enough, one naturally starts to wonder if it’s worth the trouble and money at all. Pregnancy checking cows, however, can be extremely beneficial to an operation, especially when done early and when the information gained is put to good use.

Why pregnancy check early?

One reason is to find the open cows and come up with a plan regarding their future in the operation. Open cows are costly. They require feed, care and space but return no income to the operation. It’s usually not feasible to carry an open cow for an entire year to rebreed for the following spring calving season. Producers are therefore left with a couple of options: one, cull open females or, two, roll them back into a fall-calving herd. Either way, early identification of these open females can be helpful.

When open females are rolled back into a fall-calving herd, breeding season is usually sometime around November or December. With this in mind, early identification of these females allows some time to set them up for breeding. Perhaps a producer would like to synchronize them, or perhaps they need a greater plan of nutrition to gain condition and improve their odds of settling. A producer may need to think a little bit about which sire to use and about exactly when he or she would like them to calve. If open females are not found until later into the fall or winter, it may be challenging to set them up for successful fall calving.

If open females will be marketed, there are still advantages to finding them early. Keep in mind total annual cow costs are upwards of $800 per cow for many producers, and for most cow-calf producers, feed costs represent nearly two-thirds of that cost. Particularly in areas affected by drought, winter feed may be scarce and hay may be expensive. Simply put, the sooner a producer can market open females, the less he or she has to spend feeding them.

Cull cow price is another big factor to consider. The cull cow market is very seasonal with the lowest prices usually occurring in October through December or January. Assuming the cows are in good condition, a producer might be able to cull and market early enough to avoid the seasonal market lows. Big picture, producers need to consider seasonality of the market, cow condition and feed availability and cost to determine the best approach for marketing open females.

What about pregnant females?

Are there advantages to early pregnancy diagnosis? The answer can definitely be yes. When pregnancy exams are done early enough (approximately 45 to 90 days of gestation), many veterinarians can, via ultrasound or manual palpation, estimate the age of the fetus relatively accurately. Fetal aging can help group females in preparation for calving season, potentially helping to manage labor and facilities to maximize calf health and survival. Fetal age can also be used to group females to be sold as bred females, potentially maximizing value as buyers often desire known calving dates and tight calving periods.

With ultrasound, many veterinarians can also determine fetal sex at this stage, giving the producer an idea of what to expect in terms of male versus female calves. Additionally, twin pregnancies can be identified so producers are aware going into calving season. The greater the fetal age, the more difficult it becomes to determine fetal age and sex. Beyond approximately 120 days of gestation, and certainly beyond 150 days of gestation, it becomes very difficult to accurately determine fetal age and sex. Pregnancy examination of these more advanced pregnancies yields less useful data. Basically, yes, they are pregnant, or no, they’re not, and potentially a rough estimate of fetal age. Still valuable information but overall less detail than if pregnancy exams had been done earlier.

Finally, the manner in which the producer uses pregnancy data is a big factor in the overall value gained from pregnancy checking cows. If a producer manages to use the information to sort and feed them to better condition, or to set them up successfully for fall calving, he or she will probably appreciate the value of pregnancy checking. If, on the other hand, a producer does not utilize the information to change management of these females, he or she will not capture the value of pregnancy examination.

Beef producers should consider the potential value in pregnancy checking, particularly pregnancy checking early in gestation. It might be worthwhile to make the appointment and get the job done, sooner rather than later.  end mark

Christopher Clark
  • Christopher Clark

  • Beef Field Specialist
  • Iowa State University
  • Email Christopher Clark

PHOTO: It can be easy to postpone pregnancy checking until fall or even winter, but having that information earlier can be beneficial to the operation. Staff photo.