ROCK ISLAND, Ill. — Making better decisions with cowherd records is more important than tracking more numbers.

“Your individual farm goal needs to be a part of this decision,” said Denise Schwab, Extension beef program specialist at Iowa State University. “You have to factor in how much time you have to contribute to record keeping.”

Schwab divides record keeping into four levels: Animal ID, reproduction, cost of production and profit.

“Animal ID is the easiest thing to do, and reproduction is the second-biggest profitability projector in our cowherd,” Schwab said during the Women in Agriculture conference. “Cost of production takes a little bit more time, but it will give us more information because feed cost usually makes up 60 percent of the cost of production in a cowherd.”

For animal ID, she said, producers should keep track of the cows with an ear tag or freeze brand, track the breeding date, bull the cow is mated to and the death loss of cows and calves.

“Only keep the information you are going to utilize,” Schwab stressed during the event organized by the Bureau, Carroll, Fulton, Henry, Knox, Lee, Mercer, McDonough, Rock Island, Stark, Warren-Henderson and Whiteside county Farm Bureaus in Illinois, as well as the Scott County Farm Bureau in Iowa.

Additional numbers to record include calving ease, disposition score, weaning weights and weaning dates.

“Comparing across years is where you get the most benefit from your records,” Schwab noted.

Weaning Guidelines

Cattlemen typically wean their calves at 180 days of age.

“But the last two years it was dry enough that I encouraged folks to wean at 120 to 140 days to get the calf off the cow and in a lot so he’s growing and cut the amount of feed the cow needs by 30 to 40 percent,” Schwab said. “So my records show the weaning weights dropped 80 pounds because the calves were only 140 days old instead of 180 days.”

For inventory numbers, herd records should include the number of cows, calves, bales of hay, gallons of diesel in the tank and bushels of grain.

“State your numbers as of Jan. 1, then that number becomes the ending number for 2013 and the beginning number for 2014,” Schwab said. “If you have that, we can do a lot in terms of figuring the cost of production on your cowherd.”

Most cattlemen have a calving book that can be used to evaluate reproduction.

“When we look at cost per cow, we base most numbers on per cow exposed because we’re feeding the cow all year long,” Schwab explained.

“Placemark in your book which cows were turned out with the bull,” she advised. “There will be from 2 to 5 percent of your cows you are not breeding because of bad teeth, bad udders, bad eyes or bad attitudes. Keep those cows in a separate pasture and don’t breed them.”

Keeping track of which cows were bred in the first, second or third 21 days of the breeding season is an indication of reproductive ability.

“Keep the heifers from the cow that’s first to calf in your herd,” Schwab said. “But don’t keep heifers from a cow that keeps moving her calving date back two weeks every year.”

Preg Checking

Schwab advises preg checking the females in the fall.

“With feed costs as high as they are, I would preg check shortly after the bull is pulled out,” she said. “If they’re not bred, don’t feed the cows through the winter because it is too expensive.”

The beef specialist identified several ways for cattlemen to evaluate reproductive efficiency.

Percent of calf crop weaned equals how many calves are weaned divided by how many cows were exposed to the bull.

“You’ll never get 100 percent,” Schwab said.

The breeding season pregnancy rate equals the number of cows pregnant divided by the number of cows exposed.

Calving distribution is the number of calves born during the first, second and third 21 days of the calving season.

“Start of calving is the day the third mature cow calves, not the first cow,” Schwab said. “We start with the third cow because sometimes we have cows that come early because the neighbor’s bull gets out or we have a cow that naturally comes early.”

Calves that are born in the first 21 days of the calving season will have increased weaning weights compared to calves born later in the season.

“If you get 50 pounds of extra calf at $2 per pound, that equals an extra $100 per calf,” Schwab noted.

“Reproduction failures cost the industry about $2.5 billion per year,” she said. “It’s very complicated because there’s genetic, environmental and management involvement. There’s not a simple solution to figure out what’s going on — it takes a lot of number crunching.”

Number That Matters

In addition, Schwab said, a 1 percent improvement in reproductive performance causes a threefold greater return on investment than a 1 percent improvement in production performance.

There is a lot of potential for cattlemen when they analyze the cost of production of their cowherd on a yearly basis, she said.

“You already have most of these numbers because you know the price of the cows, calves, culled cows and culled bulls you sold,” she said. “You can probably find weights and number of animals and then you can start an enterprise analysis.”

Herd expenses include both feed and operating expenses.

“Over 60 percent of our cost of production is in feed,” Schwab said. “And with increasing feed costs over the last five to 10 years, it may be closer to 65 or 70 percent.”

Therefore, she said, “if you track nothing else on your cowherd, track the feed costs since it is such a big factor.”

To evaluate production efficiency, producers can look at the pounds of feed per cow, which equals the total pounds of feed fed divided by the number of cows in the herd.

“The rule of thumb is it takes 1.5 to 2 tons of feed per cow per year,” Schwab said. “I have some producers who can feed their cows less than a ton a year because they graze a lot of cornstalks. But most people can’t do that.”