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Guest Opinions

Pregnancy Checking Can Increase Profitability

Written by Scott Lake

By Scott Lake, UW Extension Livestock Specialist


As we begin to move into late fall, most calves have been shipped. For cow/calf producers who have not taken advantage of video marketing or haven’t already locked in a selling price for their calves, monitoring the cattle market consumes much of our time and energy. 

Preparations and plans are being made for managing these weaned calves. Should they be shipped to market straight off the mother? Should they be backgrounded? Does it pay to background? What should we feed them? These are all good questions that are being asked and need to be addressed at this time of year.

However, another management tool should be considered that can have immediate and long-term herd quality and financial ramifications, and that is pregnancy checking those cows. 

After the cows have been out on pasture most of the summer, weaning usually presents a good time to visually appraise your herd and make culling decisions based on several factors including calf performance, cow age, body condition, structure and functionality, udder health and structure and, in some circumstances, disposition of the cow. 

Decreasing costs

In the current economic environment with increasing costs of doing business at just about every juncture, it is important to decrease unnecessary expenses. 

The minimal cost of having a veterinarian pregnancy diagnose a cow – between two and five dollars per head – is far outweighed by the cost of wintering a cow, which can reach upwards of $300 to $400 per head. However, a survey conducted by the National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) reported that less than 20 percent of cow/calf beef producers used any form of pregnancy diagnosis, including from palpation, ultrasound, blood tests and etc., in their herds. 

Pregnancy testing earlier in the season, in August and September, allows for marketing open cows while the market is traditionally strong for cow prices.

Weighing the options

The market for cull cows traditionally begins to decline fairly rapidly by October and remains low until February or March. 

Some producers may opt to market their cull cows in early spring to take advantage of increasing market prices. However, because the market is higher earlier in the spring than late fall, it does not necessarily mean profitability is higher by keeping those open cows. 

For example, historical CattleFax data suggests that there is, on average, about a $0.10 per hundredweight shift in cull cow prices from fall to spring, meaning the same cow may be worth up to an extra $150 if sold on a higher market. The cost to maintain a cow for the 180-day period between market shifts will cost upwards of $200 in feed costs alone, thus offsetting any advantage realized in the market. 

In some scenarios it makes sense to feed open cows and sell at a higher market. However, opportunity costs of the feed, or the opportunity to sell the feed at a higher value than will be returned by feeding a cull cow, need to be considered to maximize profit potential.

Providing information

Pregnancy testing is a management tool the can provide valuable information beyond the traditional open or pregnant status. 

Age determination of the fetus can give producers a good idea of how many cows will begin to calve in a certain time period. 

Additionally, age of the fetus can give insight into potential management problems within the beef herd.

For example, if the majority of cows are not bred within the first heat cycle, whether AI or bull bred, the herd management program should be evaluated. Issues that can cause cows to breed late in the breeding season include cows being in less than adequate body condition, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, disease, bull fertility, inadequate postpartum recovery time or time between calving and start of breeding, and insufficient bull power or cow to bull ratio, which can be dramatically affected by pasture size. 

The single biggest reason cows don’t breed or breed later in the breeding season is because they are not cycling when the breeding season begins. And the single biggest reason that cows are not cycling when the breeding season begins is due to nutrition. Proper nutrition will go a long way to ensure that the cows will have a timely and successful breeding season. 

Fertility impacts

Research has demonstrated that cows that calve later in the calving season are more likely to fall out of the herd in subsequent years due to being open. 

Fertility is obviously a desired trait that should be propagated within the beef herd. Therefore, keeping cows that are bred early in the breeding season and culling cows that continually breed later in the season will improve your overall herd fertility, increase average age and, therefore, size of calf at weaning, increase uniformity within the calf herd and ultimately help increase marketability. 

Pregnancy testing is one of the least expensive management tools available to beef cattle producers. The information gathered can be extremely useful in increasing the quality of their cowherd and improving profitability. If a large percentage of the cowherd are breeding late or are open, consult a veterinarian and a nutritionist to see where your herd management plan can be improved.