This year is the earliest spring I can remember and also the highest cattle prices in my lifetime. These factors increase the possibility for a great year in the cattle business. This year offers a great opportunity to look at our operations and make some changes to increase profitability and the farm's long-term sustainability. There are several key areas to examine; forages, reproductive efficiencies, and cow productivity.
Forages make up the base for any ruminant livestock operation. Our pastures are predominantly cool-season grasses and clovers. To improve our forages we need to examine several areas--starting with fertility. Soil fertility can be defined as the capacity of a soil to provide plants with essential nutrients. The first step to insure that forages will have the correct nutrients is pH. The pH of the soil determines the acidity or basicity of a soil and is measured on a scale of 1 to 14 with 7 being neutral. The ideal pH for our forages should be in the range of 5.6 to 6.7. Most of our soils in Watauga County are acidic and test below 5.6 Even with additional fertilizer, the growth of the forages will be limited due to nutrients being unavailable due to acidic soil.
Now is the best time to evaluate your hay and pasture forages. Is the stand thick enough with nutritious forages? Are there weeds or bare spots? Most forage in the High Country will benefit from re-seeding; this will thicken the stand and provide some weed control. The past few years, we have had droughts and some late cold snaps that have thinned the stands of forages. Now is a great time to reseed grasses. The county Soil and Water Conservation District has a no-till seeder for rent (264-0842). This works great when seeding into existing forage stands.
A cow's main purpose on the farm is to produce a calf every 365 days. I hear a lot of producers say, "That cow missed her calf, but she is a good cow. I better give her another year". This really makes me cringe! If a cow is not breeding or loses a calf, then her usefulness as a cow is diminished. This loss can be a major loss when we think about $1.80/500 lb. steers and she has $0. The prices for cull cows has been consistently above $65/100 lbs. This offers an opportunity to make a profit on cows that are inefficient and reinvest in replacements.
Reproductive efficiency starts as a heifer. The heifer should be fed to reach 75% of her expected mature weight by breeding or a minimum of about 700 lbs. This allows the heifer to calve at two years old. Heifers that calve earlier, have a longer reproductive life. Heifers should be bred ahead of the mature cows to allow them to recover from calving and to breed back with the herd.
One way to increase your reproductive efficiency is to restrict the calving season. Fewer calves are lost to calving problems and disease if there is a defined calving season. If you hold your calving season to 90 days or less, then the vaccination program for your herd will be more effective. The calves will be more uniform in size and age and less likely to be sick as calves that are weaned at multiple ages.
Cow productivity is the next area that we can make improvements. If the cows calve within a defined calving season (120 days or less), then the calves can be compared on an equal playing field by using the adjusted 205-day weight. Make a decision on what criteria you will use to define a cow that is productive in your herd. When I think about cow productivity, she needs to have a calf to wean, wean 50% of her body weight, be rebred, and maintain a body condition score of 5 to 6.5. The important thing is to keep working to improve and maintain a cowherd that is productive.
In the search for a productive cow, we need to determine how to increase her productivity. One of the first areas to make an improvement is be sure to use hybrid vigor. Hybrid vigor is crossbreeding. The predominant breed that has been used the past ten years has been the Angus. This breed has done an excellent job of marketing quality cattle that are desired by the consumer. However, many commercial herds are Angus based and may offer an opportunity to increase calf weights through crossbreeding. Be sure to select a breed that will compliment the good traits you have built in your herd.
To make this year more profitable, lets examine our forages, the herd's reproductive efficiency, and our cow's productivity. The first step is to take a soil test and correct pH and fertility. Walk our pastures and hay fields, and identify areas that need to be reseeded. Feed heifers to gain so they reach proper breeding weights; breed them ahead of the cowherd. Adopt a defined calving season, and follow an effective vaccination program. Don't forget the bulls. Decide which traits you consider desirable for a productive cow. Use records to determine productivity and cull as needed.
The last area is to become active with your county, state, or national associations. If you don't join, at least read and keep up to date with news that affects beef. I hear lots of talk about local, organic, natural, and conventional beef. The one thing that holds true is we are all beef producers and still produce a high-quality protein that fits a recommended diet.