Cattle production is largely a part-time business in the U.S., with almost 72% of cow-calf operations serving as a supplemental source of income for the operators. And almost 14% operate for reasons other than income, such as pleasure.

That's one of the tidbits in the first of a series of reports to be generated from the latest National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) study of the U.S. cow-calf sector. The report, “Highlights of Beef 2007-08. Part I: Reference of Beef Cow-calf Management Practices in the U.S., 2007-08,” is now available at http://nahms.aphis.usda.gov/beef cowcalf/.

The report focuses on health and management practices in U.S. beef operations in 24 major beef-producing states, and represents 79.6% of U.S. cow-calf operations and 87.8% of U.S. beef cows. A total of 2,872 cow-calf operations participated.

Other reports to follow will provide further data and compare results — and highlight some trends — based on NAHMS' 1997 study and its 1992 “Beef Cow/Calf Health & Productivity Audit” (CHAPA).

Dave Dargatz, DVM and a NAHMS beef cattle specialist, has been a part of all these surveys. In discussing the latest study, he describes himself as “a kid in the candy shop in terms of getting into the data to see how things compare” with earlier studies.

Besides providing a glimpse into industry trends, the results help in setting research priorities, he says. The results also provide an opportunity for educators to target messages to producers on issues that are evolving or poorly understood.

“It also gives producers, either in larger aggregate groups or on an individual basis, the opportunity to measure their herd and operational performance against the benchmarks revealed by the results,” Dargatz adds.

NAHMS was established by USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in 1990 to collect and report accurate information on animal health and management in the U.S. Since then, NAHMS has developed national estimates on disease prevalence and other factors related to the health of U.S. livestock and poultry. Participation is voluntary and confidentiality is strictly maintained.

For instance, the 1992 CHAPA study provided the first national look at cow-calf health and management in the U.S. In fact, the CHAPA study was one vehicle that provided estimates of the frequency of occurrence and geographic distribution of a “mystery” disease known today as “weak calf syndrome.”

Meanwhile, the 1997 study helped the U.S. beef industry identify educational needs and prioritize research efforts on antibiotic usage and Johne's disease. Data from that study were also critical in designing the enhanced surveillance plan for BSE.

Among the latest survey's six study objectives, ascertained by exploring literature and contacting stakeholders about their informational needs and priorities during a needs-assessment phase, were to:

  • Describe trends in beef cow-calf health and management practices.

  • Evaluate management factors related to beef quality assurance.

  • Describe record-keeping practices on cow-calf operations.

  • Determine producer awareness of bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) and management practices used for BVD control.

  • Describe current biosecurity practices and producer motivation for implementing or not implementing biosecurity practices.

  • Determine the prevalence and antimicrobial resistance patterns of potential food safety pathogens.

Those factors will be addressed in a series of at least six reports and a number of fact sheets to be released over the coming year, Dargatz says. Release of the next report — on calving and breeding management, injection practices and biosecurity — is expected in early March, with the trends report set for release in May.

Among some of the highlights of this first report:

  • The majority of operations (83.3%) kept some form of records, and more than 90% of operations with 100 or more cows kept records.

  • Two-thirds of operations (66.1%) used some form of individual animal ID on at least some cows, and 79.1% of cows had some form of individual ID. And on operations with 200 or more beef cows, 88.8% utilized individual ID, compared with 60.5% of operations with 1-49 beef cows.

  • 53.8% of operations used calf age and/or weight to determine weaning time; tradition (11.9%) was the next most common reason. Of all operations, 35.2% usually provided information regarding their calf-health programs to buyers; 74% of 200 or more cow operations were doing so, compared to 57.5% of operations with 100-199 cows, 43.4% with 50-99 cows and 28.23% of those with 1-49 cows.

  • Of operations that usually reported information to buyers regarding their calf health programs, the percentage that provided written documentation ranged from 32.6% of operations with 1-49 beef cows to 53.1% of operations with 200 or more.

  • A higher percentage of operations with 200 or more beef cows utilized specific production practices to target a breed-influenced program as a marketing channel for calves, compared with operations having fewer beef cows.

    “New data always brings home what a diverse industry there is in this country, the wide variety of environments and the ways producers do business,” Dargatz says. “I'm looking forward to spanning 15 years of data to compare numbers and determine trends.”

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