Technology is the buzzword. Row crop farmers, poultry and hog producers lead the way in adopting technology. Adoption, however, is easier in enterprises such as these with their short turnover periods, use of confinement and the type of inputs they use.
Some sectors of agriculture — beef cattle, for one — have been slower to adopt new ideas and technology. There are many technologies, however, that the beef industry could utilize but hasn't due to various reasons. They might be too expensive, offer a low return on investment, too laborious, impractical or even due to a lack of awareness.
For the sake of discussion, I'll separate practices into low, medium and high levels of technology.
Low technology would include practices that increase productivity and provide a return on investment; these most everyone should be using. These include record keeping, individual animal identification (ID), comprehensive herd health program, feed and water testing, breeding program, diet balancing, implanting, castration, dehorning, pregnancy checking and parasite control.
An excellent example is the implanting of calves at branding and/or weaning (except for breeding heifer calves). A tremendous amount of data from both company and university research indicates an increase in weight gains of 20-30 lbs. when calves are properly implanted. That's a 10 to 1 return.
Yet, according to a recent National Animal Health Monitoring Service (NAHMS) survey, only 48% of beef operations used this technology in suckling or weaning calves (natural beef excluded).
That NAHMS survey also reports that individual cow ID, which is surely important unless you also don't keep records, occurred in only 39.7% of operations. Calf ID was used in 46.9% of herds. Almost 27% didn't keep records at all.
Only 34.5% of respondents pregnancy checked their cows, while only 32% fed heifers separately. It was the larger operations that tended to utilize more technology.
The Dedication Must Be There
It's difficult for a consultant to improve an operation's production, health or genetics if an operator is lacking feed or water analysis, a planned feeding program, a herd health program, an animal ID system and record keeping. The most serious shortcoming is the lack of desire to improve.
In too many cases, consultants must pressure clients to do the basics, such as a mineral supplementation or a vaccination program. These are musts, particularly when sickness or reproduction problems exist in a herd.
Another survey reports that only 63% of producers put out salt, while 82% put out trace mineral salt. In most cases, trace mineral salt is not adequate.
But how do you know what you need if you don't analyze your feed and water? Many mineral, health and reproductive problems are not visible to the naked eye. Accurate records on birth data, sickness, weaning weights, pregnancy rates, body condition score, etc., however, can provide a clearer picture of problems and remedies.
Medium technology includes artificial insemination, pelvic measuring heifers, semen testing, semen sexing, scoring scrotal circumference, synchronizing heats, body condition scores, flushing females before breeding, feeding first- and second-calf heifers separately, expected progeny differences, value-based marketing, beef marketing alliances and video sales. While some areas may use these practices more than others, the overall use of these practices is very low.
High technology practices would include embryo and ova transfer, ultrasound for pregnancy and backfat and electronic ID. Unless a producer is working with high-priced animals and can see a good rate of return, most of these practices would not be feasible to the average producer.
Technology tools of tomorrow may include radio-frequency tags that collect individual performance and carcass records, and infared imaging that may detect early injuries, implant abcesses, injection site inflammation, bruises and performance based on metabolic rates.
Producers who employ as many of these practices as they are able to achieve, regardless of size, will see a rate of return. Producers must remember, however, that their goal should be to optimize production for the best rate of return on the time and money spent. Making either cutting costs or maximizing production as the primary goal will eventually lead to going broke.
David Wieland is a nutrition consultant specializing in cow/calf, feedlot and horses. Based in Shepherd, MT, he also publishes a subscription newsletter. For more information, contact him at 406/373-5512 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
AI Synchronization Planner Available Online
A new synchronization planner for artificial insemination (AI) is available through the Iowa Beef Center (IBC). The computer program simplifies breeding planning and helps eliminate costly errors, developers say.
Producers can access the program at the IBC Web site, www.iowabeefcenter.org (click on Cow/Calf Management, then Reproduction/AI). The program is available in an Internet-based version or producers can download the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet version.
To use the program, producers just enter the date they want to start breeding and select the synchronization system they want to use. The program then generates a report of what activities need to be done on which dates. It provides a detailed description of each activity and assumptions for the synchronization program selected.
The program also offers a cost analysis option using the number of females, estimated product costs, semen costs, feed costs/lb., amount fed, yardage, AI technician charges and trip charges.