Record keeping has always been an important practice in the beef industry – particularly to track genetic performance and profitability. But since the 2003 incidence of BSE in the United States, record keeping is also coming into the spotlight for biosecurity reasons.
Today, source and age verification are industry buzzwords as beef export markets – like billion dollar customer Japan – demand that cattle be 20 months or younger to be eligible for export there. Thus, to enhance future marketing options, U.S. cow/calf producers are being encouraged to keep birth records on all of their calves.
"Recording origin and date of birth for calves is becoming an increasingly important record to have now. It can't be ignored in this day and age," says Trey Patterson formerly an Extension beef specialist with South Dakota State University and now with the Padlock Ranch at Ranchester, Wyoming.
While record keeping does mean more effort on the part of the producer, Patterson says both seedstock and commercial producers should also view it as an important and powerful tool. He says along with documenting when calves are born in preparation for export source verification programs, keeping well-documented ranch records can help producers monitor where they are and help determine where they need to go for production. "Records can give you the tools to help determine how to increase profitability," he says.
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For example, Patterson says it is critical for beef producers to know Unit Cost of Production (UCOP), which is determined by variable and fixed costs minus non calf revenue divided by pounds of weaned calf. "To make decisions you can then analyze the unit cost of production, identify areas of high leverage, and make effective management decisions," he says.
The Top 10
That said, Patterson shares this list of records that he advocates be kept on the ranch:
1. Inventory. "Inventory is important because it provides all the numbers needed to calculate benchmark information,” Patterson says. Inventory to track includes:
- Number of cows exposed to bulls, which is important because it is a denominator in many calculations;
- Number of cows at calving time, to determine calving rate per cow exposed; and
- Number of calves weaned, to determine weaning rater per cow exposed.
- Other inventory includes number of cattle sold or dead/and the date; number of head purchased and the date; number of replacement females; and number of bulls.
2. Individual Animal Identification. It's a given that seedstock producers already do this for genetic evaluation, but as mentioned, individual animal ID is becoming an imperative practice industry wide for biosecurity reasons. "From a biosecurity standpoint this is important even if we don't have COOL or national ID because individual ID gives the ability to trace an animal," Patterson says. He adds, "If you have a cow with BSE or Foot and Mouth Disease, don’t you want to have the ability to show you’ve done things right? It can protect you."
Individual animal ID records should document the calf's place of origin, date of birth and health, vaccination and BQA treatment records (i.e. what treatments given and when.)
Once you have individual animal information, Patterson points out that a producer can also use that to track production and performance data for making replacement heifer decisions, culling animals that have a history of dysctocia or other problems, and tracking cow herd longevity.
3. Market Weights. Patterson advocates having weights on calves, cows and bulls, at minimum by group, with individual weights being even better. "This allows you to compare breakevens with market prices ($/cwt of calf sold), and it also can serve as culling criteria of cows whose calves aren’t producing satisfactory weaning weights," Patterson says.
4. Pregnancy Data. Patterson advises preg-checking the herd annually as a record keeping tool. He says, "Consider if 5% of the herd is open. That is costing you to keep those females in the herd. So it makes sense to preg-check and then sort and market the open cattle."
5. Calving Data. This should include both the calf and dam ID, a calving/dystocia score for making future culling decisions, and the birth date, birth weight, and deaths. Again, this allows for documentation of age and birth origin of the animals in the herd, and the data can also be used as criteria to cull late calvers, says Patterson.
6. Pasture Usage. This is a record you may not think of keeping, but Patterson says it can be a valuable tool for drought management. He suggests documenting when a pasture is used each year, precipitation levels, and the stocking rate. Having this information can help you plan when and how to use pastures the following year and avoid negatively impacting range condition by using pastures at the same time every year. It also gives a record of historical stocking rates.
7. Feed Purchase Records. Given the current BSE situation and ban on particular feedstuffs, Patterson says, "I'd want this in my file. That way if you ever have a BSE incidence you can prove that you didn’t feed high risk materials." For these records he says to keep dates, supplier and feed tags, and document that the feed was legal at that time. Patterson says to keep past feed records for at least 10 years.
8. Sire Information. Again, this is information all seedstock breeders keep, but commercial producers would do well to track it also. Patterson says by documenting what bulls were with each group of cows producers can better follow genetic goals and who is producing quality progeny, or if ever there is a problem bull, you know who it was.
9. Enterprise Costs. To really understand the costs that go into your business, Patterson recommends breaking costs down by enterprise (i.e. cow/calf, feeders, crop or hayland, etc). He says costs such as feed, maintenance, depreciation, interest, labor, etc. should be calculated for each enterprise.
10. Enterprise Revenues. Income for each enterprise should also be tracked. This includes cull cows, bulls, steers, heifers, feed, etc.
Making It Work
Finally, once you have a complete set of records, you can analyze them to calculate UCOP ($/lb of weaned calf) profit (revenue – costs), and return on assets (profit or loss/$invested). This list of records will also allow you to assess weaning weights/cow exposed, calving rates, calving distribution, cow longevity/replacement rates, reproductive rates by age, as well as identify problem cows and evaluate marketing plans.
Most importantly regarding record keeping Patterson says, "It doesn't have to be hard." He points out that the IRM redbook is a start. Tools for then analyzing data can include Standardized Performance Analysis (SPA) software available through University IRM programs or other spreadsheet software programs that calculate production and financial data and you are comfortable with.
Patterson admits record keeping can be a challenge because everyone approaches it differently. But he says finding a system that works will ultimately help your ranch run more efficiently.
Patterson says producers should use three guidelines in designing their record keeping system: 1) make time for record-keeping; 2) determine the herd information that will be most economical and feasible to collect; and 3) determine how you will use that information.
Patterson says, "A ranch is made up of several different components – natural resources, production levels, family, etc. And interestingly stress and conflict are usually the factors that drive decision making. But with planning and management, producers can shape the way management decisions are made to be more effective. Having records can help producers make short and long-term decisions."
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