Production Records for Commercial Cow/Calf Enterprises

Production Records for Commercial Cow/Calf Enterprises

March 2007

In an industry where the return on assets typically hovers around the 3% to 5% level, it seems critical that making management adjustments without some records is risky. On the other hand, keeping records on performance of the cowherd does take time and one of the biggest issues for some cow/calf producers is labor. Computers and good cow/calf records software programs have made this task easier, especially if you are computer savvy. For those that aren't, records and computerized record-keeping will initially be a challenge. It is estimated that about 50% of the people involved in agriculture have internet access and 80% or more have home computers.

This article will focus on production records for the cow/calf enterprise, but understand, from a management standpoint, that production records need to be combined with financial records to determine the profitability of the cow/calf enterprise. There are data, and lots of it, that would indicated that cow/calf enterprises with the largest weaning weights or highest net calf crop are not always the most profitable.

Identify the information that needs to be collected

The key to developing a good record keeping system is identifying the information that needs to be collected that will result in the items that the producer will use when making management decisions. Producers should tailor their record keeping system for their specific needs. Collection of irrelevant data can prevent meaningful evaluation and may not be time or cost effective. Collection of not enough information may not identify problem areas and could be costly.

Any record keeping system requires time and commitment. Data must be gathered on a consistent basis so meaningful comparisons can be made. The data must then be evaluated so that sound management decisions can be made. A record keeping system allows the producer to measure production processes for better overall management. For example, weaning weight can be increased by purchasing a bull with high expected progeny difference (EPD) for weaning weight. However, if the operation experiences increased calving difficulties and lower pregnancy rates, the purchase probably wasn't profitable. Producers must record all events before and after the modification in order to determine the full effect.

Keep records on herd performance

If the cow/calf manager is not currently keeping records on herd performance, a good starting point may be to collect some basic information to measure production efficiency and inventory numbers. These numbers can be recorded and calculations can be made using a pocket calculator or they can be kept on a computer software spreadsheet program.

  • A January 1 inventory of cows, bulls, calves, and replacement females would be some good numbers to record. If you are doing a financial enterprise analysis, these numbers will also be used to determine Unit Cost of Production.
  • If you are keeping an inventory of cow numbers, it may be beneficial to record the number of two-year-olds, three-year-olds, and mature cows.
  • To measure production efficiency, record the number of cows that enter the breeding season, the number of cows that calved and the number of cows that wean a calf. With these numbers, you would be able to determine pregnancy rate, calving rate, weaning rate, and net calf crop. To calculate these measures of efficiency, there would need to be adjustments for pregnant cows sold and pairs sold to get accurate numbers.
  • You may want to record the numbers mentioned above by age of dam. In other words, record the number of replacements heifers being bred for the first time, the two-year-olds being bred for the second time, and the number of mature cows.

What if Net Calf Crop Percentage is 87%? Is that good or bad? If the numbers are available to break Calf Crop Percentage down by age of female, then it can be determined if there is a certain age group of cows influencing Net Calf Crop Percentage. If that is the case, then management changes can be directed toward that group of females instead of the whole herd. The key is that the information is available to make a change without guessing as to the cause of the performance.

Use a computer cow/calf recording-keeping software program

When using a computer cow/calf recording-keeping software program, the producer can keep more individual performance information. The amount of information that can be retrieved from the computer programs is almost endless. There are number of computer software packages available to keep individual and herd records. A lot of times, there is a demo package of the software that can be down-loaded or supplied so that you can look at the program. Make sure it has the SPA Guideline calculations and produces the information that you want. In addition, make sure that there is good technical support if you have questions or problems after the program has been purchased.

With individual records also comes a commitment by the ranch to permanently identify all females and subsequent calves in the herd. Ear tags provide visual identification, but are not permanent identification because they are not retained 100% of the time. There are a number of different ways to permanently identify cattle; freeze or hot iron number brand, bangs tag, tattoo, and retinal imaging are a few that come to mind. Most producers will need a combination of visual and permanent identification in the future.

Collect spring calving season information

With the spring calving season approaching it is a good time to think about management consideration and records to collect. Besides identifying the calf, it will be important to be able to document the age of the calf. So the minimal information that needs to be collected on the up-coming calf crop is 1) ear tag number, 2) date of birth, 3) sex of calf, and 4) color marking of the calf that could be used for identification. As a form of permanent identification, tattooing new-born calves may be the best or a semi-permanent ID might be to double tag new-born calves or a combination of a tag plus a clip-tag.

Being able to track animals is going to be important from an animal health perspective.

Record the start of the calving and the end of the calving season.

Dr. Rick Rasby Dr. Rick Rasby, Professor of Animal Science
Animal Science, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Lincoln, NE