What to do with open cows — especially young cows — is a growing concern for ranchers.

There was a day when small family ranches could “eat” their way out of the problem. That's not so easy in today's world of larger commercial cattle herds.

The high nutrient requirements of young, growing and lactating cows, and the low nutrient quality of many Western rangelands, combine to cause a high percentage of open females during second and third conceptions. Many ranchers are tempted to retain such cows and give them a second chance.

“Their thought is that young open cows shouldn't be sold when certain market situations exist, or when the cow isn't pregnant for certain reasons,” says Ron Torell, University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) Extension livestock specialist based in Elko.

He says a cow's cull value is often reduced to as much as one-third of her original and accumulated investment. And, in light of the current “B” maturity grading standards (and impending discounts on cattle creeping up on 30 months of age), retaining open cows looks even more attractive.

Of course, there are varying opinions. Many veterinarians recommend selling all open cows. They say such problem cows could be carriers of reproductive disease and serve as reservoirs of infection for the herd.

The best method of dealing with open cows is to prevent them. Opens can be minimized via animal selection (matching frame size, breed and milking ability to ranch resources), proper heifer development, providing adequate nutrition and maintaining adequate body condition.

Other preventive measures include vaccinating for reproductive disease and managing fertile, high libido bulls, says Bill Kvasnicka, retired UNR Extension veterinarian.

“These measures will seldom eliminate open cows but will reduce the percentage of non-pregnant cows,” he says.

His rule of thumb is that open cows managed for prevention of reproductive problems and provided a sufficient plane of nutrition make poor candidates for a second-chance cow. However, mismanaged open cows, or those that received inadequate nutrition, are good candidates for second-chance cows, he adds.

“They were set up to fail. The fact they didn't rebreed might not have been their fault,” he says.

Old School Vs. Economics

Rancher Wilde Brough, Wells, NV, takes a practical perspective about giving the open cow a second chance.

“My dad is from the old school. He figures every cow is bound to miss a year,” Brough says. “In our country anyway, he believes cows that didn't raise a calf through the summer will be the best cows in the herd the second time around.”

In today's cattle business, Brough says, it's hard to justify keeping the old “gummers” around, at least in Elko County. But, the younger open cows are a different story. He admits that no matter how hard he tries — with good preventive health measures and a bull fertility program — overall, he averages about 8% open females each year in his 1,000-cow herd.

For Brough, the question of keeping the open cow boils down to economics — what she's worth today versus what she might be worth down the line. He knows that if kept in the herd, the second-chance cow won't return a cash flow for at least 18 months.

Ben Bruce, UNR Extension beef specialist, says selling her and buying a bred replacement heifer would result in a cash flow the first year. “Additionally, the new replacement heifer could upgrade the genetic quality of the cow herd,” he says.

Bruce warns there are risks involved with feeding cull cows.

“Adding weight doesn't always add value,” Bruce says. “The spring and summer cull-cow markets are usually better, but not always.”

Today Vs. Tomorrow

Brough and his 83-year-old father, Ferris, are confident enough of their overall management program that the decision of keeping an open cow in the herd boils down to what she's worth today versus tomorrow.

“Depending on weather and the year, we usually don't get more than an 80% calf crop from first-calf heifers,” he says. “I'm not afraid of keeping these open cows around as long as there's a chance she'll breed and bring in a good calf in the fall.”

An open, two-year old might be worth $500-$600 today but could bring $800-$900 as a bred cow in the fall, he says. “For that, I can run her through the summer and come out ahead,” he adds.

Brough says a neighbor also gives young cows that come open in the fall a second chance. The neighbor exposes them to bulls around Dec. 1 and sells them in California where heifers bred for fall calving are usually in high demand.

If slaughter prices for dry, young, open cows look better than the prospects of breeding and summering them, Brough doesn't hesitate to put a load together and send them down the road.

“If it looks like we have a few too many, we'll start sorting off the opens along with some of the cows that aren't raising a substantial calf and go to town with them.”

“Open due to nutrition” is the only good excuse

Research in Nevada indicates only cows not pregnant due to poor nutrition the previous year should be considered for a second chance.

In 1996, Ben Bruce and Ron Torell, both University of Nevada, Reno, Extension livestock specialists, initiated a long-term study on the economics of keeping open cows. The study tracked the productivity of a group of second-chance cows on the Lundahl ranch located in central Nevada's north Diamond Valley.

The cattle were managed under as close to “real-world” conditions as possible. A group of 44, open Angus and Angus/Hereford-cross cows from a herd of nearly 500 were determined not pregnant with their second or third conceptions in November 1996.

The herd had been properly vaccinated earlier that spring and received adequate pre-partum nutrition. Going into calving, average body condition score (BCS) was a 5.

The cows were exposed to healthy, semen-tested young bulls prior to a May 15 turnout. A 25:1 breeding ratio was maintained throughout the 168-day breeding season.

But, that spring and summer, the open cows ranged on pastures that resulted in “deficient” post-postpartum nutrition, Torell says. The cows' calves were weaned in mid-September, while the cows remained on rangelands until mid-October.

At pregnancy check, conception rate for the 491 head of first- and second-calf cows was 91.6% with 80% bred in the first 78 days of the breeding season. The 44 test cows represent 9% open females.

The open cow market value late that fall was about $258.

After Nov. 1 weaning, the test cows were revaccinated and placed on meadow aftermath, with 10 lbs. of alfalfa hay and liquid protein. A month later, the ration was bumped to 20 lbs. alfalfa. The inclining plane of nutrition gave the young cows a reasonable chance to come back into shape for rebreeding, Torell says.

The test cows were synchronized and exposed to 45-day natural service breeding.

“This gives the cow a second chance but not a third chance,” Bruce explains.

Breeding was in the fall rather than spring in order to cut the time of non-productivity and accelerate cash flow, he adds. All cows were pregnancy tested 60 days post-breeding.

The resulting conception rate was 67%. The market value for the bred cows at time of spring pregnancy check was $650 versus $360 for the still-open cows.

Even considering the death loss of one animal, and a net loss of $90/head on still-open cows (versus selling them Nov. 1) the group netted a $109/head profit.

“We found giving these cows that show potential for rebreeding a second chance may be a good strategy, particularly in good market years,” Torell says.

He's adamant that only cows not pregnant due to nutrition should be considered for a second chance. But, there's a point of no return when it comes to body condition.

Young cows in very poor body condition (BCS 3 or worse) are risky for a second chance, Torell says. More profit would have been realized on the second-chance project if “poor candidates” had been marketed in November and not included in the study.

“They were set up to fail and did,” Bruce says. “This study suggests that ranchers can profit from second-chance cows, but they should carefully evaluate the candidates they think should be given a second chance.”