As I continue to conduct cost and return analyses for U.S. beef cow producers, I see today's record calf prices aren't translating into record profits for some (and perhaps many) ranchers. Several missed profit opportunities are surfacing and, indeed, are preventing record profits. Some can be corrected at little or no dollar cost.

Virtually every rancher I've worked with carries a calf book in his pocket. But whenever I've asked what is done with the data, the most frequent answer is “not much!” Let's look at how your existing pocket calving book data might be used to turn a missed opportunity into profit.

A calving book that contains each calf's birth date, calf number, weaning weight and dam number is all that's needed to generate a herd calving distribution table (HCDT). In turn, that table can turn a calving book's data into a powerful herd management summary that can tell a manager a lot about his herd's production performance.

An HCDT example

Figure 1 depicts an actual HCDT. This North Dakota herd calved 164 females at a herd average weaning weight (AWW) of 563 lbs.

The columns in Figure 1 summarize this herd's production by 21-day calving intervals. The rows summarize the herd's production by age of dam. The AWW for each 21-day calving period is summarized at the bottom, while average calving date and AWW for each age of females are summarized on the right.

A total of 56 females calved in the first 21-day period, generating an AWW of 639 lbs.; while 38 calved in the second 21-day calving interval, generating a 571-lb. AWW. In the third interval, 34 females calved, recording an AWW of 526 lbs. In the fourth, 18 females calved, averaging 412 lbs. Finally, the eight cows calving late had a 380-lb. AWW; and two females were open.

In order to maximize the pounds of calf weaned, all cows in this herd should calve in the first two intervals. Thus, an opportunity to increase profit lies in managing females from the later calving intervals forward toward the 1st and 2nd calving intervals.

Because only what is measured can be managed, ranchers should measure 21-day calving intervals. There's no better way to measure calving interval than by an HCDT.

Enhancing profits

The answer to how ranchers should use an HCDT to enhance profits lies in the very bottom line of Figure 1 — in the “Lbs. to be Gained” line, which is shown in red. If just one of the eight late-calving females can be moved up to even the 4th calving interval, an average of 32 lbs. more calf would be weaned in the fall.

Moving just one of the 18 females in the 4th calving interval up to the 3rd interval would add 114 lbs. more weaning weight. Moving a female from the 3rd to the 2nd interval would generate an extra 45 lbs.

These added pounds are the economic reward to tightening up the calving interval. For example, moving just half of the females in the 3rd, 4th and late-calving intervals forward just 21 days would up this rancher's AWW by 11 lbs. That is the equivalent of four more calves to sell at weaning.

With fall 2004 U.S. record calf prices, this missed profit opportunity is $2,758. For all practical purposes, this added weight is free.

Moving all the 3rd, 4th and late-calving cows forward 21 days would add $5,516 to the value of calves produced. This suggests this rancher has a $2,500 to $5,500 missed profit opportunity due to his wide calving distribution.

Set a calving distribution goal

So what should be the calving interval goals for this rancher? Perhaps the best guideline is the benchmark values generated by other well-managed herds. Figure 2 (page 8) benchmarks our example herd against the five-year rolling average of North Dakota's Cow Herd Analysis Performance System (CHAPS) herds. These North Dakota herds all had herd-performance records.

While our study herd had 44.9% of its calves born in the first 21 days, benchmark herds had 58.2% of their calves born in the same period. Our study herd had 74.4% of its calves born in the first 42 days vs. the benchmark herds' 85.9%.

By the end of 63 days, the study herd had 80.4% of its calves born, while benchmark herds had 95.2%. The study herd had 19.6% of its calves born after 63 days, while benchmark herds had only 4.8%.

An HCDT doesn't tell us how to correct a problem; it only identifies the profit-increasing opportunities. Once identified, it's up to the manager (and his consultants) to determine how to take advantage of it. In this example herd's case, the rancher needs to get his cows bred in a more timely manner.

If the example herd's cows were to calve in the same interval as the benchmark herds, the example herd's AWW would be 36 lbs. higher and generate an extra 6,013 lbs. of calf to sell at weaning. At fall 2004's large price slides, the added weight would have generated $4,236 more calf revenue.

As average calf weight increases, price slides ensure the market price goes down. The steep price slides experienced this fall reduced the marginal price of the added 6,013 lbs. from marketing heaver calves to just 70¢/lb. of added weight.

Of course, biology sets the limits on how much a producer can consolidate his herd's calving interval. My recommended set of production guidelines comes from the CHAPS benchmark values (Figure 3). The left-hand column summarizes the U.S. Integrated Resource Management Standardized Performance Analysis (IRM-SPA) Guidelines published in North Dakota for operating a high production herd. These guidelines suggest 61% of your calves should be born by day 21, 85% by day 42, and 94% by day 63.

The right-hand side includes additional critical success factor guidelines used in North Dakota. Of heifers, 36% should calve early, with 71% calving by day 21, and 85% calving by day 42.

Today's high market prices are generating big economic rewards to intensified management. “Management as usual” may be what is amiss out there.

Harlan Hughes is a North Dakota State University professor emeritus. He lives in Laramie, WY. Reach him at 701/238-9607 or