Category: Livestock

Turning common heifer development logic on its head

Most of you, because of “expert” advice, have been over-developing your heifers. Let’s throw out everything you have learned and start fresh to get the most efficient cows in your herd.

Burke Teichert | Nov 28, 2018

From my earliest memories of reading farm magazines and attending cattle management conferences or seminars until now, there have been many ideas and opinions about how to develop and select replacement heifers. I am about to offer a perspective that will differ from most of what you have heard or read during these many years. I have interspersed much of it in these articles during my time as a writer. Now I will try to put it in this one piece.

Heifer development not only can be, but should be much simpler than we typically make it.  Selection and development go hand in hand. They facilitate each other.

Most of you, because of “expert” advice you have received, have been over-developing your heifers. You have selected the biggest and prettiest heifers based on biased and subjective criteria. I want to suggest that you change that approach.

You will need to start where you are with the cattle that you have; so most of you will want to take a few years to get to the point I suggest. Each step will tell you how big the next step may be.

I think nearly every herd has some good cows. My definition of good—those that get pregnant, deliver and raise a good, not necessarily excellent, calf every year without you ever touching them except for routine immunizations. The rest are inferior. In the long run, you want those cows to be the mothers of your replacement heifers; so raise more of them.

How do you do it? You keep nearly all of your heifer calves. You only remove the few that are obviously challenged or inferior.

This will usually be less than 5% (maybe not at first, but keep most of them). You then shorten the heifer breeding season as fast as you dare until your bull and/or AI exposure is not more than 30 days, ideally 24.

If you have calving dates from previous years, you can see what percentage bred in 24, 45 or 65 days and can get an idea of how many days to expose this larger group of heifers. Because you will be keeping some later-born heifers and not developing them to gain as rapidly in addition to shortening the breeding season, you will need to expect a lower conception rate.

Now, instead of trying to get the heifers to 65% of expected mature cow weight, 55% will be enough. You may want to take a couple of years to get to that point. However, many have done it quickly.

I hope you see how this more moderate or “minimal” development plays into heifer selection.  With less input and size, the ones that conceive in a short season are truly the good heifers.  They are more closely adapted to your environment.

Now the arguments start to come:

  • I won’t be breeding the best heifers. You don’t know which ones are the best. Let the bulls and the environment tell you which ones are best. They are the ones that get pregnant. There are very few, if any, people that can look and tell which ones will breed.
  • I don’t want to keep that many heifers. Why not? Yearling operations are usually more profitable than cow-calf operations; and you should winter these calves like stockers going to grass. The only added expense is use of the bulls or AI.Open heifers should be nicely profitable. Many people are hesitant to keep more heifers because of the cost of development. If the cost of development is high, that is a problem; and unless you can change that, you shouldn’t be raising your own replacements.

    Don’t tell me that you need to develop your own heifers because they are better. If they were better, you could get a good breeding rate with less development cost. The added value of yearling heifers should be significantly more than the added cost.

  • I would like to use the genomic tools to evaluate the heifers before breeding them.  Why? Those tools might give you some genetic tendency information, but it won’t tell you which ones will get pregnant in the first 24 days. The bulls will.The average heifer calving in the second cycle cannot live long enough for her lifetime production to catch up with the heifers that calve in the first cycle regardless of other genetic differences.
  • That heifer’s mother isn’t good enough to keep the daughter as a replacement. You are selling the wrong one. Sell the mother. If you are using good maternal bulls, the heifer calf should have a good chance of being better than her mother. If you are not using good maternal bulls, you need to find them or raise them or become a terminal breeder.
  • I might soon have more pregnant heifers than I need. Good. Now you have a marketing opportunity. You may sell the excess bred heifers. Or my recommendation is to keep the bred heifers and sell enough late bred cows to make room for the heifers that are going to calve early.Many areas have buyers for cows bred to calve later than your calving season. Also, as you remove late-bred cows, your calving season will get shorter and the latest born heifer calves will be older and more likely to breed. You can see how the positive effects begin to multiply.
  • I don’t think those “underdeveloped” heifers will make good cows. Research done by Rick Funston at the University of Nebraska and Andy Roberts at the Land and Range Research Station in Miles City, Mont., plus a bunch of personal practical experience says that they will make better cows than the ones I am calling “over-developed.”If you want to help them along a little, do it from the time they are diagnosed pregnant as a yearling until they are checked pregnant as a 2-year old. That is the most difficult 12-month period of her life. You would much rather sell an open yearling than an open 2-year-old.

Now let’s ring up the pluses:

  • When you start putting many heifers into your herd that will all calve early in the calving season, you will soon be able to shorten the cow calving season by removing late bred (less efficient and less adapted) cows. As your calving season gets shorter, the latest born heifer calves will be older and more likely to breed. Weaning weights will also increase.
  • In future years, more and more heifers should be eligible breeders.
  • As more of these heifers come into your herd, you will be able to remove the less desirable cows. Soon you will get by with less supplemental feed and have an increased level of herd health.
  • New marketing opportunities will show up. Remember the ranchers who are terminal crossing or should be. They need your excess cows. Even though the late calving cows are a little inferior for you, they could work very well for the terminal breeders, especially after a few years into your program.

Two more points:  I am convinced that the heritability of fertility, under minimal heifer development and reduced cow herd inputs, is significantly higher than the estimates of low heritability that we usually hear. You need to buy or raise bulls that will not undo what you are trying to accomplish with your heifer development and cow culling.

Teichert, a consultant on strategic planning for ranches, retired in 2010 as vice president and general manager of AgReserves, Inc. He resides in Orem, Utah. Contact him at

Tagging Calves

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Tyson Pharo made a comment in last week’s PCC Update that came very close to ruffling some feathers. Good job, Tyson! Many cow-calf producers think it is sacrilegious to not ear tag calves at birth. Most do it because they have always done it. Several years ago, the PCC Discussion Group came up with several “Kooky Notions” that the members used to have. Ear tagging calves at birth was one of those kooky notions. I’m sure many subscribers are saying, “What’s wrong with tagging calves at birth?”

To begin with, each and every one of your cows knows which calf is hers – without an ear tag. If you are a commercial rancher (not raising registered cattle), you are NOT getting paid to ear tag your calves. I am not against putting identification ear tags in every animal – but it can be done when the calves are run through a chute for vaccinations, etc. It does not have to be done within a few hours after birth.

There are at least four problems with ear tagging calves at birth. First and foremost, it is dangerous. Every year we hear about someone being seriously injured or killed while trying to tag a newborn calf. How would you feel if someone in your family got hurt while tagging a newborn calf?

Second, ear tagging calves at birth disrupts the bond between a momma cow and her newborn calf. This is a very critical time for a newborn calf. Any outside interference does more harm than good.

Third, ear tagging calves sets you up to keep records on individual animal performance which will keep you from maximizing sustainable profit per acre. For the past 40+ years, the status quo beef industry has been enamored with increasing individual animal performance. This has created high-maintenance cattle that do not fit any environment outside of a feedlot. Consequently, the result of focusing on individual animal performance is reduced profits. I still believe most ranchers can double their profit per acre once they stop focusing on the wrong things.

Fourth, ear tagging calves at birth is very time consuming. It takes a whole lot more time than 30 to 60 seconds per calf. Tagging calves requires you to ride or drive to the cows and through the cows. If you don’t go at least twice a day, you will not be able to catch the calves. You must do this every day. Even if you have a short 45-day calving season, you will have at least 90 trips to and through the cows. Because tagging calves is time consuming, it will set the limit as to how many cows you can run. The most profitable ranches are running 500 to over 1000 cows per man. It would be impossible for these ranches to tag calves at birth. They spend their time (and money) on things that increase their profits.

The time and money most producers spend on things like keeping individual animal records and ear tagging calves at birth could be used to improve grazing management via fences and water development. This could easily double or triple your profits per acre. You could be getting paid two or three times more for doing half as much work. You could create a VERY profitable and sustainable business for your children and grandchildren.

I am often drawn into discussing this “kooky notion” at my speaking engagements. Tagging calves at birth is a paradigm that most producers struggle to get away from. For every reason people have given me to justify why they tag calves at birth, I have always been able provide an alternative.

People say they need to have an easy way to pair up cows and calves when going to summer pasture. I suggest you move bred cows to summer pasture and allow them to calve in sync with nature on green grass. Bred cows are much easier to handle, haul or drive than pairs. All of the problems producers associate with calving will magically disappear when cows are calved in sync with nature. You do NOT have to be there to see every calf born! Also… any cattleman worth his salt can pair up cows and calves without ear tags.

Some might ask, “So how do we identify the cows that produce the dink calves?” That’s easy… after separating the cows and calves at weaning, sort off the dink calves. Turn those dink calves back out with the cows – and they will make a beeline to their mommas. Ride out and bring in the dink pairs to be sold.

Would you be able to calve 500+ cows by yourself if every calf had to be ear tagged at birth? No – but you could if you did not have to tag calves. Mark Bowman, a PCC customer in Western Nebraska, once told me about an encounter he had with his dad who was over 80 years old at the time. Mark was calving around 1200 cows in sync with nature. His dad said, “If I knew ranching could be this easy, I would still be doing it.”

Keep it Simple… Mankind has always been notorious for making simple things complicated. It doesn’t have to be that way. Ranching can be fun, easy and profitable! If your ranch is NOT fun, easy and profitable, then you can only blame yourself.

Did you know… that the average age of cow-calf producers is close to 60? That is nearing retirement age for most businesses. Why do you think the average age is so high? Could it be that traditional (status quo) ranching is NOT fun, easy and profitable enough for the next generation to consider it as an occupation?

Cow Fixer Vs. Herd Health Veterinarian? BEEF Vet Examines Production Medicine

Production medicine is part of every-day veterinary medicine. As the veterinarian, you should always be thinking about the clients total operation. Are you a cow fixer or a herd health veterinarian. There is a big difference.” — W. Mark Hilton

Wes Ishmael | May 25, 2013

Production medicine—melding animal health and veterinary care into animal production management—is beyond infancy, but it’s far from losing all its teeth.

“The concept of cow-calf production medicine is still relatively young and still evolving,” says Terry Engelken, DVM, a professor of production medicine at Iowa State University, focusing on the cow-calf and feedlot sectors. “It requires paradigm shifts on the part of the producer and the veterinarian. The producer has to come to the realization that their veterinarian has more to offer than just being a ‘cow mechanic’ and the veterinarian has to understand how to collect and analyze economically important factors that impact profitability.”

Though Dr. Engelken sees slow, steady growth over time, it seems acceptance and use of production medicine is scattered, more client-dependent than size-dependent.

In California, for instance, John Maas, DVM, Extension Veterinarian at the University of California-Davis says it’s a mixed bag. There are progressive practitioners working with progressive cow-calf producers to improve profit potential. There are also producers who view veterinarians as folks who douse emergencies, and veterinarians content to provide only those fire-engine practice kinds of services.

“It’s been one of those things you would think common sense and good business suggest we would have evolved to by now,” Dr. Maas says.

Figuring out the business model of providing production medicine services continues to stall some.

Russ Daly, DVM, Extension Veterinarian at South Dakota State University, believes producers recognize the value of veterinarians and the information they provide. He also knows veterinarians who want to provide production management service to clients. For the most part, though, he says, “In this state, I’m not sure that we’ve found a good way for veterinarians to capture that value, which works for the client as well.”

As for W. Mark Hilton, DVM, it’s impossible to think about production management without considering the animal health side of it and vice versa. Dr. Hilton is a clinical professor in food animal production medicine at Purdue University. He also founded and owns Midwest Beef Cattle Consultants, which many regard as a poster child for how to work with clients in partnership rather than a buyer and seller of specific services.

“Growing up, our veterinarian helped us. He fixed things, but he’d also show us something else that could help us,” Dr. Hilton says. “Production medicine is part of every-day veterinary medicine. As the veterinarian, you should always be thinking about the client’s total operation.”

Dr. Engelken concurs.

“I disagree with those who say that production medicine skills are separate from individual animal medicine, surgery, or palpation skills in a cow-calf practice,” Dr. Engelken says. “I think they are very intertwined in that unless you can exhibit a high level of competency in these areas, you probably won’t build enough trust with the producer to provide consulting services. These skills are also absolutely critical to being able to collect the baseline production numbers that you need to be able to provide consultative services to the client.”

“Are you a ‘cow fixer’ or a ‘herd health veterinarian’?” Dr. Hilton asks, “There is a big difference.”

Herd-Specific Data is the Foundation

For one, Dr. Engelken explains, “Record keeping and data analysis must come into play if you are ever going to get this type of service off the ground. You can’t benchmark performance if the appropriate numbers aren’t being recorded, and that first step can be a real challenge. You have to think about what output parameters you want to evaluate and then make sure you are getting those numbers captured. Then, it becomes a question of identifying the magnitude of losses and what areas the client needs help with. Are those losses associated with cattle disease, herd management, or a combination of both?”

“Production medicine is more of a mind-set of how you do things, and the most important thing that we can do is find the weak links in the production chain,” Dr. Hilton says. “We want to find the most important factors that are hindering a farm’s success.”

In that effort, Dr. Hilton encourages veterinarians to focus on four production goals: decrease production cost; increase the value of production sold; doing both of these with less labor; and maintain or enhance animal welfare.

“I’m a fan of individual cow records,” Dr. Hilton says. “Producers are surprised how consistent individual cow production is from year to year.” With records, clients can see that a cow weaning a calf 25 percent lighter than the herd average this year will likely produce one of similar caliber next year, and the year after. Dr. Engelken points out that the records portion of cow-calf enterprises is less standardized and more challenging to ferret out than in other sectors like feedlots, stocker operations, dairy and swine.

“Your opportunities to generate production or economic numbers are really driven by specific events that occur during the annual production cycle,” Dr. Engelken explains. “These events include calving, calf processing, going to grass, weaning, pregnancy check, etc. You aren’t typically generating input/output numbers on a daily basis like producers in other animal enterprises. These events may be separated by several months (start of breeding until preg-check) or they may occur over a relatively long period of time (the calving or breeding season), which makes data collection and interpretation more difficult. Secondly, in cow-calf practice, veterinarians are often the ones collecting the data since they will be the ones on the ranch as these production events occur. This data may take the form of reproductive information, calf performance numbers, and animal health performance.”

The next step is at least as essential.

Once this data is collected, the important thing is that it is economically relevant to the operation and that it is converted into information that the practitioner and client can use to identify problems and make corrective management decisions,” Dr. Engelken says. “I believe that’s when information has economic value to the producer. This value is improved over time as economically important management changes are continually identified, documented, and benchmarked.”

cattle feed additives

Areas Of Impact

Any area of production that drives a substantial amount of production output or input invites examination.

For Dr. Engelken, three key areas jump to mind: data based evaluation and the benchmarking of reproductive performance over time; nutritional management to control the cost of supplemental feed; herd health design and maintenance.

“Reproductive performance drives the bus on the income side of the equation and has to be closely monitored,”

Dr. Engelken says. “However, when you look at the differences in profitability between beef operations, you will find much more variation in input costs than you do in revenue generated. Since the largest component of cash costs deals with supplemental feeding, it is only natural that our profession should be involved in evaluation of the nutritional program and cattle feeding practices.”

Likewise, Dr. Hilton says, “Nutritional consulting has provided our clients with the best return on investment. Feed costs are up tremendously over the past five years and our herds that have kept feed cost from rising at the national average are doing much better financially than those that are average or above. I have heard from veterinarians who have saved clients $30,000 in feed cost versus what they would have fed. Even simple ideas like allowing cows only 4-6 hours daily access to hay can save a producer over 30 percent of his hay cost, according to Purdue research.”

As for design and maintenance of the herd health program, Dr. Engelken says, “We are constantly bombarded with new ‘miracle cures’ that come from a syringe, in the form of antibiotics, vaccines, or mineral supplements. I think the practitioner plays a key role in helping producers understand what they need, and maybe just as importantly, what they don’t need. This also requires that diagnostic information be collected from both live animals and necropsies so that disease patterns on the farm can be monitored and herd health programs changed as needed. This is still at the heart of veterinary medicine.”

“Every herd has strengths and weaknesses, but if health is one weakness, it’s nearly impossible to have any real strengths,” Dr. Hilton says. “Think of all the problems that may occur subsequently if calves get sick at a very young age—increased death loss, lower weaning weights and rates, increased sickness and decreased growth in the feedlot, less replacement heifers for the herd, etc. Health is surely a huge impact on the total herd.”

Wrap it all together and Dr. Engelken says, “In our case, we continue to be involved in nutritional management, ration analysis, electronic record keeping, and evaluating reproductive performance. We also spend a fair amount of time evaluating options for our clients and using partial budgets to play ‘what if’ games and look at alternatives.

“Providing impartial science-based information is part of our job. Just simply due to the huge impact that reproductive performance has on ranch profitability, I guess it’s inevitable that we continue to look at estrus synch options, bull selection parameters, and the potential uses of gene markers. Having said that, we still do the traditional things such as palpations and disease management.”

It’s Hard To Pigeonhole Client Interest

As mentioned at the outset, producers of a particular size or in a particular part of the world aren’t necessarily more or less likely to be interested in a production medicine relationship. But there are indicators.

Where he sees successful production medicine relationships, Dr. Maas says, “Number one, the ranchers are business people, no matter the size of the herd. They’re 110 percent vested in the cattle business for their income or they have come to ranching from another business. They understand inputs, outputs, shrink, all of the things that affect their bottom line.”

When Dr. Engelken was on faculty at Mississippi State University, he worked with folks in the agricultural economics department to survey beef producers in the state. The aim was trying to identify practices, demographics and characteristics that defined various levels of management.

“Obviously herd size made an impact. The larger the herd, the more time the producer devoted to herd management. These producers also utilized their veterinarian more often,” Dr. Engelken explains. “However, factors such as client age, education level, the number of extension meetings attended, serving as an officer for a cattlemen’s group and participation in seedstock production affected their level of herd management, as well as how they interacted with their veterinarian.

“That is a point that I try to drive into our students: If you want to come into contact with producers who would be willing to use consultation services, then you need to understand the characteristics of those producers. Our graduate veterinarians need to be involved with the local cattlemen’s groups, extension programs, as well as organized veterinary medicine. They need to be able to identify larger operations (especially seedstock) that are being operated by younger individuals who have an animal science or ag economics degree.

“Those are the producers who understand the impact that our profession can have on their bottom line. However, there are also smaller operations that want to do things the right way and will actively seek out this type of service, even though their cow herd is not their primary source of income.”

Conversely, Dr. Maas believes veterinarians willing to proactively forge new relationships and strengthen existing ones tend to have the most success providing consulting that goes beyond fixing problems.

“Clients call to ask questions. That’s the point at which veterinarians need to begin relationships,” Dr. Maas believes. “Maybe someone calls to ask about a particular vaccine. Also tell them how to handle it and how it should be administered. Ask them if they’re BQA certified.” Dr. Maas says.

“Then, figure out a way to follow up to see how they got along, at no cost to them. Maybe that leads to a chat about how they develop their heifers or what genetics they use and why,” Dr. Maas says. “Invest your time and energy into follow-up, so they understand that you’re the kind of veterinarian who is interested in their operation, not just someone who’s there when there’s an emergency or when they have a question.”

Some will grab the invitation immediately and do their part to establish the relationship. Others never will.

“Dedication to relationship is the important thing,” Dr. Maas says.

“The bottom line is that there may only be 15-20 percent of clients that will be willing to pay for a complete consultative type of program (nutritional management, record keeping, breeding season evaluation, economic analysis, etc.),” Dr. Engelken says. “But, they have been my best clients because without fail, they have all made me a better veterinarian.”

How You Go About It

“The key is to establish credibility and gain trust,” Dr. Hilton says. “The client has to trust the veterinarian to do what is right for the client’s business. That trust comes from time spent working together and having some successes along the way. If I can solve a client’s calf scours problem then I have earned some credibility. Once I have credibility I get asked more questions about the beef business. I want to be the ‘go to’ person in their beef business. Half the time they have a question, I won’t know the answer, but that’s not a deal breaker. I know the people who can help answer that question. They are already on my ‘team’ because I have asked them questions before.”

Likewise, Dr. Engelken says, “It takes time and trust. We work for a client base that tends to be very conservative and risk averse. They want to feel comfortable that you can treat a sick animal and have it get better, that you can handle a dystocia and end up with a live cow and calf, that you have accurate palpation skills, and understand the importance of reproduction to their bottom line.”

A common characteristic Dr. Maas notes in the practitioners involved in these kinds of relationships is their passion for sharing information.

“These veterinarians are educators. They love what they’re doing. They love to educate, to teach, and they don’t feel like they have to do everything themselves. They’re happy to share their knowledge and don’t feel like they have secrets to guard,” Dr. Maas says.

If you’re looking for a more specific game plan, Dr. Hilton suggests, “Go to the client who asks you the most questions. Tell him or her you want to make a deal. You want to do more production medicine and want their herd to serve as the pilot. You’ll charge less because you’re learning, too.”

Then, Dr. Hilton says, “Let’s look at the goals for your herd, identify something I can help you with in the next year, a problem I can solve or help prevent, something that will make your life easier.”

For example, maybe the client says winter feed costs have gotten out of control. Even if you don’t feel like you have the nutritional expertise to solve the problem, Dr. Hilton stresses you know folks who can.

At the same time, don’t sell yourself short.

“Some of our veterinarians have tremendous expertise in nutrition. Others are very savvy on added value marketing programs,” Dr. Daly says. “They might not realize they have enough expertise to provide advice to clients, but they probably do.”

Incidentally, Dr. Daly sees genomics as an area where there is currently a void of understanding that veterinarians could help clients bridge.

Getting Paid For What You Know

None of this works, of course, unless veterinarians are paid enough to make production medicine worth their while. As alluded to earlier, some folks feel uncomfortable charging for information they’ve likely given away in the past.

Plus, it can be difficult for producers to assign value to information when it seems to be everywhere for free.

“You can get information from your neighbor, from the Internet, from university extensions,” Daly says. “I try to impart to producers that local, farm-specific information is more valuable than information they can get anywhere else.”

One step Dr. Daly sees some veterinarians making in such a transition is charging clients by the hour rather than for providing a particular service.

That’s how Dr. Hilton has long charged clients.

Rather than be tempted to try selling a client another product or service, by charging hourly, Dr. Hilton says you can try to talk them out of buying things to save money and add value.

“You do not have to sell something to someone to make a living,” Dr. Hilton says. “You do not have to do a procedure on an animal. Our most valuable asset is our brain. You have to charge for your knowledge.”

“We could argue about the definition of consulting as it applies to a cow-calf practice,” Dr. Engelken says. “I guess maybe the simplest definition is getting paid for what you know. That payment could take several forms such as a per head fee, a retainer, an hourly consulting fee, or even enjoying a high degree of client loyalty because you offer a higher level of service than other veterinarians in the area.”

Of course, there are few buyers for anything that dampens rather than grows the bottom line.

Veterinarians Must Bring Value

“In consulting, the goal is to always give the client value for the money they spend. If I charge someone $1,000 for consulting and it saves him $5,000, that is a win-win. If I charge $6,000 for that same result it is win-lose and the client will never spend money with me on consulting again,” Dr. Hilton says.

“The way that we marketed our program is that we explained to the owners that, really, this program was free,” Dr. Hilton says. “If, for example, the program was going to cost $8 per cow, per year, to be on the records and consultation part of our program, we would show them how they could make at least $8 more per cow in increased income. Then we would also show them how we would be able to save them at least $8 per cow in reduced expenses. We guaranteed the program would be cost effective to the owners IF they gave us their short and long term goals AND they implemented the changes we suggested.”

The program Dr. Hilton is referring to is the Total Beef Herd Health Program (TBHHP). He began it in 1988 when he started Midwest Beef Cattle Consultants. The program cornerstones are herd health, records, fertility, environment, marketing, genetics and nutrition.

“We examine the herd from a total herd view and make recommendations based on financial return,” Dr. Hilton explains. “Common concerns of herds I have visited in the past include: inadequate herd fertility, cows that do not fit their environment, lack of hybrid vigor, pasture conditions that are not optimum for production, excessive calf morbidity, etc. Although we see recurring trends in herds, each herd is quite unique in its strengths and weaknesses.”

Back to the beginning of the program.

“After looking at financial figures, many times the first year on the program produced significantly more than twice the client’s investment. We had herds that increased revenue up to eight times what they paid us for one year of the program, so that was very exciting,” Dr. Hilton says. “If you want to be a hero with your clients, in addition to helping them decrease their cost of production and increase the value of their product, have them do both with less hours of work devoted to the enterprise. Tell me who else has these goals for the producer? The answer is no one.”

Dr. Hilton cites other examples of veterinarians bringing added value to clients:

  •  Vets host an annual calving clinic to remind clients about when to call for assistance(progress every hour), what supplies they should have on hand, and provide a review of techniques on how to assist in delivery.
  •  Clinics help clients precondition calves with a uniform health program, then sort them into uniform load lots so client calves command higher prices.
  •  Vets assist cow-calf owners in formulating rations, utilizing corn and soybean coproducts to stretch winter feed resources and save significant money on winter cow feeding.

One vet organized some of his very best client herds to sell bred replacement females. After pregnancy check, the secretary at the clinic records all data in a spreadsheet and provides this to producers looking for heifers. The spreadsheet gets updated throughout the fall and winter as heifers are sold and others are added to the for sale list.

“Recently, a beef producer had some calves for sale. Last year he received a horrible price, given the quality of the calves. He asked another producer where he sold his calves. That producer told him, ‘My vet lined up a couple of potential buyers for me and I got top dollar.’”

The producer who received the lousy price contacted the veterinarian. The veterinarian stopped by to see the calves and called two buyers. The producer received a price he felt his calves merited.

“The producer then called the veterinarian about his calf scours problem. Long story, short, the veterinarian proposed a very good solution to the scours problem, started asking about nutrition and will be formulating all of that producer’s rations now,” Dr. Hilton explains. “The same producer also wants to enroll his herd in the veterinarian’s records program. The veterinarian has become the ‘go to’ person for that producer’s beef herd.”

Dr. Hilton asks students the most effective way to have success with clients in the future. He tells them it’s having success with clients today.

“You have to provide value,” Dr. Hilton says. “It’s got to make money for them. I want to be an asset to the client, not a liability.”

Moreover, Dr. Hilton emphasizes clients must drive.

“Clients have to tell you what they want. You can’t tell them what to do,” Dr. Hilton says. He learned that lesson the hard way early in his career. “I give them recommendations, the owner makes the decision. If they want to keep a late-calving cow, for instance, that’s their business.”

“You really have to pick and choose your opportunities to start production medicine programming,” Dr. Engelken says. “Rarely do you institute this massive consulting type relationship at one time; at least that has not been my experience. It seems like I have been more successful in starting with an obvious weak point such as heifer development or an animal health issue and then working in the rest of the program over a number of years. Some herds are more willing to adopt this type of relationship faster than others, but it takes time to build that trust account with the client.”

Though none of this is necessarily quick or easy, Dr. Hilton emphasizes that’s it’s not complicated.

“Let people know what you can do. Do it. Follow up. Keep asking clients what their goals are and then help them reach them,” Dr. Hilton says. “Veterinarians need to be more proactive in asking clients what they need from them. Clients need to demand more from their veterinarians than fixing problems.”

You Might Be Cell Grazing If…

by Dave Pratt

A lot of ranchers use some kind of grazing rotation. Very few do it in a way that has even a 50/50 chance of improving the health of the land, the performance of their cattle and the profitability of their businesses.  There are so many names attached to various rotations, it is hard to know from the name what people are doing. Cell grazing is not a grazing system, it is a management method based on 5 fundamental principles.

You might be cell grazing if…

  • You are using at least 10 paddocks per herd.  It takes a minimum of 10 paddocks just to stop the overgrazing.  14-16 are required to support decent animal performance and it’ll take 25 or more if you want to see rapid range improvement.   Ranchers using fewer than 8 paddocks are not rotationally grazing. They are rotationally overgrazing.
  • You have combined several herds into one.  The fastest, cheapest way to create more paddocks per herd is to combine multiple herds into one.
  • You have reduced your workload. It takes a lot more time to check 4 herds of 200 cows than it does to check one herd of 800.
  • Productivity per acre has improved without sacrificing individual animal performance.  Many people using grazing rotations increase output per acre but find that individual performance suffers.  Cell graziers keep graze periods short and animals moving frequently to fresh forage. This tends to keep performance high.
  • You’ve dramatically increased the productivity of your pastures and the carrying capacity of your ranch without seeding or fertilizing pastures. Many Ranching for Profit School alumni have doubled the carrying capacity of their ranches while reducing labor and input costs.


You aren’t cell grazing if…

  • Someone asks you how long your recovery periods are and you tell them how often you move the cows. I’m continually surprised by the number of people who describe their grazing practices by explaining the length of their graze period when it’s the rest period that is most important.  The single biggest mistake most people make in grazing management is providing too short a rest period.
  • You use the same recovery period year round.  In cell grazing the recovery period is matched to the growth rate of the pasture.  Since growth rates change, the length of recovery periods needs to change too. Slow growth, long recovery.  Fast growth, shorter recovery.
  • Animals are moved from one pasture to the next in lock-step fashion.  In cell grazing, if a paddock isn’t ready for grazing, the animals should not be moved there.  The animals ought to be moved where the resource dictates they go.
  • You have increased your use of herbicides, fertilizer, seeding or fire.  These tools aren’t bad per-se, but they can have more negative consequences than positive ones.  Cell graziers usually don’t find herbicides, fertilizers or seeding necessary and many have dramatically reduced the need to burn.

Responding to a survey we included in last week’s ProfitTips, reader’s answers revealed several important trends. For example, people reporting that carrying capacity increased “A lot”  used an average of more than 30 paddocks/herd. Readers reporting “A little” increase used an average of 20 paddocks/herd, and those reporting no increase used an average of 10 paddocks per herd. The same trend held true for improvements in pasture quality, animal performance and profit.


Your responses also revealed several differences in the grazing practices used by Ranching For Profit School alumni v. non-alumni.  The key differences are:

While more than 60% of RFP alumni completing the survey use at least 14 paddocks per herd, only 40% of non-alumni use that many.


RFP alumni reported that the average recovery they gave paddocks during fast growth was two to four weeks longer than the rest periods used by people who have not attended the RFP school.  The difference was even greater during slow growth. The average recovery period used by RFP alumni averaged one to two months longer than the recovery periods used by non-alumni.


Most interesting to me is the difference between RFP alumni and non-alumni in the change in workload.  RFP Alumni using 30 paddocks or more were four times more likely than non-alumni to report that cell grazing dramatically reduced their workload. Non-alumni using an equal number of paddocks were twice as likely to report a dramatic increase in their workload.


The most dramatic decrease in workload was reported by RFP alumni using more than 50 paddocks per herd. Why would the workload decrease for alumni using that many paddocks?  The majority had also timed the breeding season of their livestock to match the breeding season of wildlife, thereby drastically reducing or eliminating the need for hay. Fewer non-alumni had the breeding season of their herds in sync with the forage cycle.

What Does Size Matter?

Cow and calf sizes: A lesson in basic cow economics….

A big question for many cattle producers is how to make their operation more profitable.

“Cow-calf producers tend to operate on a fixed land/feed base associated with a substantial overhead cost in annual rents and finance payments,” says John Dhuyvetter, North Dakota State University (NDSU) Extension livestock systems specialist at the North Central Research Extension Center near Minot.

Key profitability drivers are the production of as many pounds of calf as possible to sell off the resource (land/feed) and capturing favorable market prices, he notes. Factors that contribute to the pounds produced are the calf crop percentage (low calf losses equate to more calves to sell), cow longevity (lower heifer retention equals more producing cows), calf weights (which are a function of genetics, age, and nutrition), and stocking rate.

For the operation to be sustainable, the forage resource is limited in pounds and the animals it can support. Opportunities are available to enhance production through grazing systems and management that improves soil and moisture retention.

However, while simply overstocking and overutilization may improve output in the short term, they likely will diminish output through time. On a fully utilized land/feed resource, even selecting cows for added calf growth and weaning weights likely will not improve profitability.

“From a feed equivalency standpoint, differing numbers of cows of varied sizes weaning calves of different sizes generate the same market weight,” Dhuyvetter says.

For example, 88 frame score 4 cows each weighing 1,200 pounds and weaning 550-pound steer calves at seven months have roughly the same feed need and generate the same market weight as 75 frame score 7 cows each weighing 1,500 pounds and weaning 650-pound steer calves. The feed needs are similar for 83 frame score 5 cows each weighing 1,300 pounds and weaning 585-pound steer calves, and 79 frame score 6 cows each weighing 1,400 pounds and weaning 620-pound steer calves. With selection for higher milk production, which may increase weaning weight, stocking rates will be reduced further.

“If reproduction, calving loss, culling rate, and market price are the same, there is no advantage to any size group,” Dhuyvetter says.

“If, however, there is some adaption advantage, as seen in maintaining body condition, leading to better breed-back and calf survival, by some type or size group, an economic efficiency exists. Similarly, if the market discounts prices for some weight/size combination, that group will be economically disadvantaged.”

The market generally slides prices, paying more per pound for lighter calves; however, this may not reflect true value differences for some heavier calves capable of greater feeding efficiency and carcass value, he notes. That being the case, somewhat smaller calves appear to be favored until calf prices become discounted.

Along with the consideration of cow and feeder calf size is the potential value of the terminal crossing of larger sires with moderately smaller cows to maintain high cow numbers capable of producing greater weaning weight of greater market preference. An example is mating bulls with acceptable calving ease scores and a frame score of 6 to frame score 4 cows and providing supplemental feed (creep) if necessary to add growth.

“Decades of selection for greater growth and size have been associated with improved efficiencies in the feedlot and packing sectors,” Dhuyvetter says.

“It also has resulted in larger, more productive cow types on the ranch, which may or may not be more efficient.

“Cow requirements need to be matched to and met by ranch resources to avoid costly excessive inputs,” he adds.

“It’s about achieving lots of weight to sell at favorable prices from a herd of cows of moderate size that are capable of producing a high calf crop percentage with minimal culling.” — NDSU Extension


Low-Stress Weaning Done Right

Whit Hibbard & Dawn Hnatow September 12, 2018 01:27 P

Low-stress weaning—regardless of how we do it—begins with how we gather and bring in the cattle. If we don’t do it properly, the cows and calves are in panic mode before we even have them in the corral. ( Sara Brown )

A lot of producers look forward to weaning with nothing but dread because it’s so often a bad experience for them, their cows and sometimes their facilities. Many producers can tell stories about their corrals being torn down by the cows postweaning, and not being able to sleep for three or four nights after weaning due to bawling cows and calves.

Also, weaning can be an extremely high-stress experience for calves and the short-term effect on health and performance can be significant. For example, the stress of abrupt weaning increases fatal secondary bacterial respiratory infections and average daily gains can be seriously compromised. 


Conventional Weaning

The conventional belief is weaning is a difficult, traumatic experience, and the cows and calves are going to want to get back together. Therefore, we need to do it in a sturdy corral. And here’s the irony: If we believe that’s the way it’s going to be it probably will; it all starts with our mindset.

But it needn’t be that way.

handling A
Prior to weaning, pour the cattle back and forth several times to prepare them for the weaning. 

Low-stress Weaning

Weaning can be done low stress, but it takes a different mindset. The low-stress belief is that weaning is only traumatic and stressful because we make it so. If left alone, cows will wean their calves naturally and with no fuss and no postweaning sickness or weight loss. They are also more than likely happy to be rid of their 6- to 8-month-old 500-lb. to 600-lb. calves. And that’s the way it should be when we do it. The problem is, we get the animals out of a normal frame of mind and end up causing all the problems we normally experience with weaning. The cows’ concern is us, not necessarily the weaning. If the cattle are always handled well, they learn to trust their handlers and they know their calves aren’t in danger.

So, low-stress weaning—regardless of how we do it—begins with how we gather and bring in the cattle. If we don’t do it properly, the cows and their calves are unmothered and in panic mode before we even have them in the corral. But if we bring them in calmly and mothered up, the actual weaning process is rather uneventful.

Fence-line Weaning

A particular form of low-stress weaning involves weaning through a gate between two pastures. The idea is to calmly separate pairs at the gate so they never lose sight of each other or, if they do, they can quickly find each other across the fence. With this approach the emotional trauma of complete separation is mitigated.

A three-year study compared the behavior and postweaning performance of calves that were: not weaned (the control group), fence-line weaned and abruptly weaned. The fence-line-weaned calves exhibited similar behavior to the non-weaned calves and they spent more time eating than the calves that were abruptly weaned. They also gained 50% more weight during the first two weeks after weaning.

handling B
One or more handlers can keep a slow, steady stream of pairs walking to the gate. Photo: Whit Hibbard

Ingredients For Success

1. Prepare Your Cattle

In general, everything we do with our cattle that we’ve been talking about in this stockmanship series will train more manageable animals that will help in the weaning process.

Of particular importance is training your cattle to calmly walk past a handler at a gate. If you don’t do this, then fence-line weaning will likely be difficult at best.

2.  Pasture Management

You need two pastures, each with enough forage to last at least seven days.

Keep the cattle in the pasture where the calves will stay for several days prior to weaning so they get used to their new home.

handling C
On weaning day, a sorter at the gate is charged with separating cows and calves. Photo: Whit Hibbard

3. Cattle Management

Prior to weaning, pour the cattle back and forth several times to prepare them for the weaning (Figure A).

If your cattle are accustomed to walking calmly past a handler at a gate you might only have to do this exercise once. However, if they are not, you might have to repeat this several times over successive days until they understand the process.

On weaning day:

  • Gather cattle loosely near the gate.
  • The sorter opens the gate and draws the cattle to him (See photo A).
  • One or more handlers can keep a slow, steady stream of pairs walking to the gate (See Photo B).
  • The sorter makes the split at the gate (Photo C).
  • If you make a mistake (e.g., a calf gets through the gate) resist the temptation to fix it because that will unnecessarily stir everything up; rather, wait a few days postweaning and go straighten it out.

Going through these preparatory steps is important. If you don’t follow protocol, you are inviting a wreck. For instance, one rancher fence-line weaned across a page wire electric fence, and the cows tore down a couple hundred feet of the fencing because he didn’t go through these steps. If done properly, however, cattle have been weaned across a single-strand electric fence.


If protocol is followed, weaning should be a non-event for the cattle as illustrated in Photos D and E. Photo D was taken down the fence line (the sorting gate is in the foreground) later on weaning day. As depicted, all the cows and calves are out grazing and nothing is hanging on the fence. Photo E was taken the next day. Some cows and calves have returned to the fence but nothing is balled up on the fence, and there was no bawling. 

How to build the best loading chute

Heather Smith Thomas
September 6, 2018

Many ranchers have ways to load cattle into a stock trailer, but if they send calves or cull cows on a cattle truck or semi they need a loading chute. A good chute makes it easy to load or unload cattle, and is easy for the trucker to get to and away from.

Rusty Hamilton (Salmon, Idaho) hauls cattle all over the West and has loaded or unloaded at thousands of chutes—at ranch headquarters, sale barns, feedlots and more. Some chutes work better than others.

“For the floor, many people use wood (with cleats) or dirt and those give good traction for the cattle. I’ve loaded and unloaded at chutes with expanded metal flooring and I don’t like those; even though they are easier to keep clean because manure falls through, I don’t like an open floor because cattle can look down through it and this can spook them,” he explains.

Cleats on a wood floor are important for traction, and Hamilton suggests bolting wood strips onto the floor. “If they are just nailed, and cows come sliding out of the truck (if there’s moisture on the flooring) and hit the cleats they pull the nails right out—and then you have sharp nails sticking up.”

Angle is also important. “The ramp needs to be at least 10 to 12 feet long but doesn’t have to be much longer, because you are only going from ground level up to 36 to 48 inches to get into the truck or cattle trailer. I’ve loaded cattle up some 6 foot ramps, however, and they will do it but it’s a pain; some of them balk if it’s that steep,” says Hamilton.

Width is also important. You don’t want a chute too narrow for big cattle, but you don’t want it so wide that smaller cattle try to turn around. “About 30 to 36 inches is probably as wide as you want it. This may be a little tight for a big bull, but for cows and calves it works pretty well,” he says.


The loading area needs to be big enough that trucks can turn around and back up to the chute easily. Avoiding sloped areas is best, he said. “They really need at least 200 feet by 200 feet in front of the loading chute to easily turn around and back in there. Sometimes we have to do it in smaller spaces, but it’s trickier. As long as you have a straight shot at it—so drivers can pull up and back into the chute—and not have a sharp corner when they pull out from the chute, it works ok.”

Hamilton has a couple of tips for what not to do when building a loading chute.

“Don’t build it inside a corral. That’s fine when the corrals are dry, but in winter or spring it gets muddy and slick (or boggy) and hard for trucks to get in and out.” The space for maneuvering a big truck may be limited unless the corral is large.

“Don’t put a loading chute alley on the same alley where cattle are moved toward the squeeze chute. Some people do that to save space, but the cows don’t want to go that direction and tend to balk when you try to load them. They associate it with the working chute,” says Hamilton.

You want a good corral design for getting cattle sorted and moved into a loading chute. Sometimes pens are awkward for loading. “I recommend at least a couple gates in the alleyway, and a gate near the bottom of the loading chute, so you can close it off. Then if a few cattle come out you are not unloading the whole load,” he says.

“Make the sides of the loading chute solid (wood or metal), so cattle can’t see through it as they go up the ramp. It’s just like a working chute; if they can’t see out they tend to go better without balking at something they see off to the side, and they’ll follow the cow ahead of them. If you put a slight turn to the alley leading to the ramp, this is better than a straight chute because they don’t see what’s happening at the truck and tend to just follow the cow ahead because they think they are getting away,” he explains.

He also recommends having a walkway up the loading chute so people can go along it if necessary, to encourage a reluctant animal. “I would also put a gate at the top so a person can come out of the loading chute (after following a bunch of calves, for instance), and walk back down the walkway. If the chute has solid sides it is really hard to climb out; you need a gate to go in and out of the truck or chute,” he says.

“Many people put a swinging gate at the top so it can be adjusted in case the truck is not exactly perfectly straight against the chute; they can move the gate a little to close a gap, but if the chute has solid sides I’d still put a gate at the top so a person can get through it—like an escape door in a trailer. If something is coming after you, it’s good to have a gate and not have to try to scramble up a solid wall!”

RANCHER PERSEPECTIVE – Reuben Olson, who ranches near Prairie City, South Dakota, has several loading chutes, but his main chute is made of wood. “It is not very steep; it is 16 feet long. We have a lift on it so we can adjust the height. We can drop it down to load a stock trailer and raise it to various heights to load different size trucks. It is about 3 feet wide, with solid sides. Cattle will go up the chute a lot better if they can’t see through the side or the bottom; there’s nothing spooky to distract them on the outside.

“I talked with one guy who built his ramp in stair-step fashion–like going up short little steps, and the cattle go up it very well, and it isn’t at all slippery,” says Olson.

Some people build up an area for the chute (or have trucks coming to it on a lower level) so the floor is dirt or gravel rather than having a ramp. “Many sale barns have a chute with dirt floor and this is good footing. The cattle don’t have to go up a ramp; they walk straight onto the truck on the same level. I think that would be ideal,” he says.

Holding pens behind the chute should be user-friendly, to get the cattle in. “If the loading chute is next to the gate where they ordinarily go out of the corral, you can line up the pens so cattle are moving in a circle and know this is the direction to go out of the corral. If they always go out that corner, they naturally want to go that way,” he explains.

Brian Glass and Kent Wilkinson, also of Prairie City, built two loading chutes in Glass’s shop last winter out of steel. One of the biggest challenges was moving the heavy chute outside and into place.

“We used oilfield pipe for the frame (posts and base), and sheet metal for the sides,” says Glass. The sheet metal was 3/16ths thickness, and 4 by 8 foot sheets. “We used quarter-inch plate for the ramp. I made a double chute—side by side—one at ground level with just a dirt floor for loading stock trailers, and the metal ramp for the loading chute for semis.”

The quarter-inch plate for the ramp was heavy and awkward to handle but made a solid, durable floor. “We used old steel posts that were bent or too short for cattle fences as treads for the floor,” says Glass. These were welded onto the metal plate, for traction. Eventually he plans to make a small ramp for the trailer-loading chute so calves can step right into the trailer and not have to jump up.

“The metal ramp for the truck chute works nicely. One neighbor said we should have used wood (bridge planks) because metal would be too noisy. But the cattle loaded very well up the metal ramp and it wasn’t noisy because everything was welded solid and didn’t rattle. I figured the quarter inch plate would last a lot longer than wood.”

The chute is 36 inches wide. “It could be a little narrower but a big bull will fit through this, and when are loading calves if one calf stops another one can go by it. The ramp is about 16 feet, but 3 feet of that is a level landing at the top. The 13 feet is a gradual incline and then there’s the flat spot where they walk into the cattle truck. I saw one like that and thought it was a good idea—so the cattle are not scrambling upward as they go into the truck,” says Glass.

“I put a door so you can walk through, and not have to crawl over the solid side. I also put a door up front on the trailer side, so you can get in and out and slide the trailer gate,” he explains.

The sides of the chute are 5-foot 2-inch height from floor to top. “This is the height I build free-standing panels; cattle don’t try to jump over,” says Glass.

“It took a little longer to build and more material than we thought, but will last a long time—much longer than wood. We used 2 7/8 inch oilfield pipe for the bottom frame and 2 3/8 drill steel pipe for the posts. We made a bottom base and welded the posts to the frame; the posts are not set in the ground. If necessary I could lift and move it to a different spot.”

Wilkinson says these chutes will last beyond their lifetimes. “We put conveyer belting on one side of his to help buffer and muffle the sound.”

For anyone trying to build a metal chute, Wilkinson and Glass recommend making sure you have extra time, and some help to hold everything. “It’s very heavy material, and squaring up the posts on top of that pipe is tricky and you need an extra hand,” says Glass. “It was really good having the neighbors help.” Kent Wilkinson and his father Jim helped put the chutes together.

Some of the angles were also tricky, but doable. “I used a plasma cutter, but mainly a chop saw. I created a saddle at the end of my pipes, to touch each other, rather than a straight cut, so there wasn’t so much gap to weld. It fits better and saves a lot of welding,” he says.

“Sometimes a trucker is in a hurry or not careful when backing up and hits a chute pretty hard. The wooden ones don’t hold up very well with that kind of abuse, and they weather too much. Metal will last a lot longer,” says Wilkinson.