What tasks need to be done to help assure a successful breeding season this year? Let's start with the bulls.
Nationally, about 10% of all bulls fail a Breeding Soundness Examination (BSE) each year, and a similar or greater percentage are what I would call marginal. I've always been an advocate of a yearly BSE on all bulls, and veterinarian Tom Kasari recently confirmed for me the financial return to the owner.
Kasari developed a spreadsheet to gauge the cost-effectiveness of performing a BSE on a bull. You simply plug in your figures and see the financial implications.
I started off by surveying a number of beef vets to find the average price for a BSE, plus hospital/chute or trip charge. As I plugged in the numbers, I started with a 95% weaning rate and 550-lb. calves at weaning at $119/cwt. (as per Harlan Hughes' January 2008 article in BEEF, page 10). If the BSE exam was at my average price and the improvement in fertility was only 3%, the benefit:cost ratio was just over 13:1. Thus, the value of the service was 13 times greater than the cost.
Visit your local banker today, give him $1 and tell him you'd like to get $13 in return next fall. I think you'll get an odd look. There's no doubt that a BSE is the most cost-effective procedure you can do to ensure bull fertility.
Let's talk heifers. On the heifer side, we see more and more herds doing reproductive tract scoring (RTS) on yearling heifers. At about 60 days prebreeding, these heifers are walked through the chute and palpated to see if the reproductive tract is mature enough for breeding, and if she is cycling. (You should also ask you herd-health vet about vaccinating these heifers with a modified-live IBR-BVD vaccine at this time.)
Heifers that score 4 or 5 on the five-point scale have a mature reproductive tract and should be excellent candidates as long-term investments for the herd. Heifers that score 1 are asking to leave the herd. Implant and ease them onto feed so these infertile heifers can change careers to a feedlot animal.
Heifers that score 2 and 3 are marginal. If you have mostly 4s and 5s, ask yourself, "Why did 75% of the heifers mature to become 4s and 5s, while the other 25% only score 1-3?" After all, they all had the same nutrition and opportunity to become that long-term investment.
Should you feed the entire group more to get that 25% cycling, or sort out the 2s and 3s and feed them more? I'd do neither in my herd, as I want to set the bar quite high for inherent fertility. A marginally fertile heifer that's asking for "a little special treatment" is likely to become a late-calving or open cow. Neither option is good for your herd.
If you have a large number of 2s and 3s and almost no 4s and 5s, I'd question the nutrition or genetics. Weigh and frame-score the heifers at the same time as the RTS is performed. If they average 650 lbs. and frame score 5.2, you likely underfed the entire group from weaning until now. If they're 800 lbs. and a frame 7, look hard at genetics (and put them in the feedlot where they belong).
What if they're all 4s and 5s? This sounds good on paper, but it may indicate they were all pampered and fed too much since weaning. We really need a few that score 3 and under to be sure we're selecting for inherent fertility and not just overfeeding them.
RTS cost-effectiveness. As I examine the cost-effectiveness of doing an RTS on heifers and the average price from my survey, it seems an easy argument if historically fewer than 80% of your heifers are bred in a 42-day breeding season. On the other end of the spectrum, if you're always at 95% or greater, you're likely feeding the entire group too much.
If you're breeding your heifers for more than 42 days, consider moving it to only 42 days. If you're at less than 42 days and 85-90% of your heifers are getting bred, congratulations. You need to share your wisdom with other producers.
I've spoken with many owners who have reduced heifer-breeding time to 42 days; every one of them is pleased with the long-term results. Remember, a late-calving heifer becomes either a late-calving cow or an open cow, neither of which is good for your business. It's better for your herd's financial success to have an open heifer that can go to the feedlot and be sold as Choice beef than to have her calve late the first year.
With a BSE on all bulls and an RTS on all heifers, you're heading in the right direction toward excellent herd fertility.