As beef producers in the United States move to expand numbers, veterinarians are positioned to play a key role in the process of rebuilding the U.S. cow herd,” says David Patterson, state beef extension specialist and professor of animal science at the University of Missouri (UM). Patterson is also an internationally recognized expert in beef cattle reproduction.

“Veterinarians serve as a key information source for U.S. beef producers and are essential in facilitating the adoption of reproductive procedures,” Patterson says. He refers to the beef 2007-2008 study from the National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS). It cites veterinarians as the primary source most cow-calf producers use as their source for information pertaining to their operations, including health, breeding and genetics, nutrition or questions pertaining to production or management.

This trust represents a key veterinarian opportunity and responsibility as the industry faces the need to significantly grow the cow herd.

Wanted: Reproductively Fit Heifers

For perspective, when this year began, there were 29 million beef cows, according to USDA. In 1996, 18 years earlier, there were 35.3 million. All cows and heifers calving last year were the fewest since 1941. The total inventory of all cattle and calves January 1 this year was the sparsest since 1951 at 87.7 million head.

In its 10 year projections published earlier this year, USDA estimates a beef cow herd of 33.7 million head by 2023—4.7 million head more than we had when 2014 began.

The annual U.S. Baseline Briefing Book released by the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI) at the University of Missouri sees beef cows increasing from 28.9 million head this year (January 1) to 30.9 million head in 2018, and then declining to 30.1 million head by 2023—as many as 1.1 million more cows over the next decade.

According to Patterson and D. Scott Brown, a UM agricultural economist  and assistant research professor of agricultural and applied economics, “The opportunity for an increase in retention of beef heifers to exceed 5 million head remains a possibility as the herd attempts to recover from the long term inventory decline.”

Besides growing raw numbers in the name of competitiveness with other domestic animal protein sources, and with international beef, U.S. beef producers also need to improve the reproductive efficiency of the existing herd.

Based on a synopsis of key efficiency metrics from Southwest Standardized Performance Analysis, such as calving rate and pounds of calf per cow exposed, efficiency during the past two decades is static at best.

“Effecting change in reproductive management of the U.S. cow herd requires a fundamental change in the approach to management procedures and development practices being used on heifers retained for breeding purposes,” Patterson and Brown say. “We have reached a point concerning reproductive management of our nation’s beef cow herd in which the tasks of development and transfer of technology must be emphasized equally and progress parallel to one another for the U.S. to maintain a strong beef cattle sector in our agricultural economy. Unless efforts are taken to implement change and incentives in the U.S. beef cattle industry, many of the products of our research and technology will be exported to more competitive international markets.”

Unfortunately, the NAHMS study mentioned earlier suggests the use of reproductive technologies in U.S. commercial beef cow operations continues to be lacking. In that survey, for the East and South Central regions, Patterson points out only 22 percent and 32 percent of beef cow operations, respectively, used reproductive procedures including estrous synchronization, artificial insemination, pregnancy diagnosis, ultrasound, pelvic measurement, body condition scoring, semen evaluation, or embryo transfer. In the West and Central regions it was 55 percent and 49 percent, respectively.

For that matter, 55 percent of beef operations in the U.S. reported having no defined breeding season, representing 34 percent of all beef cows in the U.S.

One reason adoption of readily available reproductive technology lags is the fact that so many producers have so few cows.