After reaching a peak of over 33 million cows in 2006, the U.S. beef cowherd inventory has been declining by about 2% per year (Figure 1). In 2009, there are fewer than 32 million beef cows – the smallest inventory since 1964.

The recent decline has been the sharpest drop in beef cow numbers since the mid-1990s, when financial losses were widespread among cow/calf producers. Interestingly, the current beef cowherd is generating the smallest U.S. beef calf crop that has occurred in 5 decades, which will likely result in stagnant or reduced beef production as well.

Is Opportunity Around the Corner?
Thinking optimistically, it’s a really good thing that the decline in beef cattle numbers coincided with the current economic recession and softened domestic demand. However, if looking at the situation as an opportunist, the next 2 to 5 years in this industry could offer a tremendous possibility for widespread profitability among cow/calf producers.

The recession will end at some point, and both U.S. and global beef consumers will increase their appetites for U.S. beef. Due to a shrinking U.S. beef cowherd and limited heifer retention, today’s first- and second-calf cows could be producing calves at a time of tremendous beef demand and reduced supplies (i.e. 2010 and beyond?).

Most would agree that the middle- and late-aged cows in a cowherd “pay the bills” for the younger females (1st and 2nd calvers). The deadly combination of high heifer development costs and an increased chance of first-calf heifers not re-breeding due to inadequate body condition costs cow/calf producers substantially. However, producers that modify the management of young females during post-calving during 2009 could reduce the incidence of young open cows, and potentially also take advantage of higher calf prices 2 to 5 years from now.

A proven way to increase pregnancy rates in young beef females is to increase the number of females cycling at the start of the breeding season.
Several strategies may improve short-term reproductive performance of young cows by increasing the percentage of cycling females.

Monitor Body Condition
According to USDA National Animal Health Monitoring Service (NAHMS) survey data, 42% of cows lost weight from just after calving (7 days after) until weaning time. This loss of body weight occurred primarily during the time of year when forages were most available and typically at their highest quality, which also occurred during the breeding season.

It is crucial for producers to monitor changes in both body weight and body condition score (BCS) in young females from calving through breeding to avoid weight loss during this time of elevated nutritional need. To avoid weight loss, supplemental energy and or protein should be provided. Use of the BCS tool has been shown to improve reproductive performance; however, less than 25% of all beef producers use this tool in order to manage the nutritional (and reproductive) status of their cows (Figure 2).

Consider Weaning Earlier
Weaning calves early from young females may have more of an effect on reproductive performance compared to all other strategies combined, due to its substantial effect on body condition. However, according to the most recent NAHMS survey, most beef producers decide their weaning time based on calf performance, and not on cow condition (Figure 3).

Long-term improvements to body condition and reproductive performance can be achieved if calves are weaned early from 1st calf heifers. Improved reproduction can result if calves are weaned at the start of the breeding season (e.g. 90-100 days of age) or early in the breeding season (e.g. 110-120 days of age). In one experiment, a long-term improvement in reproductive performance in cows was observed when early weaning was done when the females were 1st calf heifers. Consistent immediate benefits of early weaning have not been observed when calves were weaned late in the breeding season (e.g. 130-150 days of age).

Removal of calves reduces the nutritional requirements of 1st calf heifers by eliminating the energy demand from lactation. In addition, since suckling has an inherent negative effect on cyclicity after calving, females tend to begin cycling sooner if calves are weaned very early. Body weight and condition can also be added back to young cows during a time when forages are more readily available. However, there are several increased costs associated with early weaning, including: 1) facilities to handle early-weaned calves, 2) labor to manage younger calves, and 3) a feeding program to maintain optimum calf performance and health from the time of early weaning until they are sold.

Develop and Use a Ration
Due to elevated requirements, many young beef females would benefit from supplemental energy and/or protein from pre-calving through breeding since they become pregnant early in the breeding season. Further, producers using the BCS tool are able to quickly recognize that nutritional needs are not being met, and can modify their nutritional program.

About half of all operations with over 300 cows formulate a ration, but less than 25% of all beef cattle operations formulate a ration. Historically, ration formulation was slow and tedious; however, current computer-based ration formulation programs are easy and very low cost (several are free – check with your local University Extension). A properly formulated ration ensures that the nutritional needs of a female are met in order to optimize performance. A ration also helps to reduce feed costs by reducing the amount of overfeeding (especially protein). Ideally, a forage analysis should be completed prior to ration development to ensure that the calculated ration is accurate.

Young beef females typically need supplemental energy in order to maintain appropriate body weight and condition prior to breeding. Supplementation of fat – one of the most energy dense feedstuffs available – has resulted in a larger number of pregnant females if supplemented prior to calving in 2 experiments, but no difference in another. In contrast, consistent benefits of fat supplementation on mature beef cow reproduction have not been reported.

Several trace minerals are important for reproduction as well. Unfortunately, applied research into the effects of trace minerals on young beef cows is limited. There is strong evidence that supplementation of copper, zinc, and manganese can impact pregnancy rate early in the breeding season, compared to not supplementing these trace minerals.

Use Bull Exposure
The number of young females cycling at the start of the breeding season can be improved via exposure to vasectomized bulls. Exposing females to bulls beginning 30 to 45 days after calving can stimulate (or hasten) cyclicity in some females.

Similarly, the use of commercially-available hormones – such as melengestrol acetate (MGA) or controlled internal drug release (CIDR) devices – to increase the percent of young females cycling prior to breeding have also been evaluated. However, results have been inconsistent and the cost-benefit of using these products to stimulate cycling has not been addressed.

The Bottom Line
Young females need to be managed closely this spring and summer in order to: 1) avoid a large number of “money-losing” open females this fall, 2) reduce dependence on high cost bred replacements this fall, and 3) maximize the number of higher-priced calves that can be sold during 2010 and beyond.
Many management and nutritional options are available for producers to use on young females in order to increase conception early in the breeding season. The cost-benefit of each strategy should be evaluated prior to incorporating it into an operation. However, based on USDA survey data, it appears that many producers could improve their reproductive performance via several simple management strategies (e.g. body condition scoring, ration development, etc.) that are not currently being utilized.