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A COMMON DILEMMA

Jay Nixon

This week, a progressive, young rancher called my office for the purpose of ordering copies of my book, Cowboy Marketing, to give as Christmas gifts to his friends and associates -- what a good idea!

I know he was both young and progressive because he had read and admired the book and because in our conversation, he disclosed what he was doing on his own operation to increase the return on his cattle.

He was using big, good Charolais bulls on his Braford and Brangus cows in an attempt to improve the quality and the weaning weights of his calves. He was worming regularly. He was putting out plenty of mineral. In short he was doing many of the things he needed to do in order to stay in business and prosper in these difficult times.

I told him that considering his program, I might know some people who would be interested in buying the kind of calves he was obviously producing with such a program and would be glad to give the man his name.

That's when he confessed that he wasn't able to sell his calves in large groups, though he had a pretty fair number of calves to market every year, because he left his bulls out year-round. Because of this he could only sell small groups of calves at any one time through his local auction market.

Let me hasten to say that selling your cattle through your local market is fine. The problem is the fact that he can sell only small groups of his really fine Choice and Number One feeder calves at any one time. This means he is unable to generate that extra few dollars per hundred that can be gleaned from selling long strings of calves that are the same type and weight.

Also, he is unable to take advantage of any of the programs that offer producers bonuses and incentives for producing groups of superior calves. And there are more and more of these programs coming on line every day.

There are plenty of good marketing reasons for short breeding seasons that can all contribute to adding income to a production operation, but the advantages don't stop with just marketing.

Production programs in which the bull is left with the cows year round allowing the calves to come when they will, are havens for infertile, non-productive cows. They are Meccas for slow breeders. They place no demands on the cow, and if she gets a calf once in a while, she gets to stay in the herd, eating the grass, receiving the care, accruing the expense just the same as the cow that goes about the business of breeding, calving and breeding back with efficiency.

Such slow breeding cows are costly. They run the per unit cost of production through the roof and make it impossible for the operation to earn any profit. Look at it this way. Let's say that an operation of this type is carrying 100 cows, and let's say the per-unit cow-cost in that operation is $350, including land, feed, veterinary expense, fuel, repairs, labor, interest and all the rest. That $350 times the 100 cows in the pasture, or $35,000, is what it takes to operate. Any income produced above that total cost is considered profit.

Under normal conditions, an efficiently run operation of the type mentioned should yield a 90 percent calf crop or better, so this means we need to produce 90 calves worth about $390 each to break even. With the kind of bulls we are using and the type of calves we should be producing, we should be able to do that, even on today's market.

But in a year-round breeding program, we really don't know how many calves we are producing out of our cows in a given year. Calves drop at odd intervals, grow out and are sold at odd intervals when they reach a given weight or size.

And let's say, as is typical, that we have allowed 15 or even 20 slow breeding cows to remain in the herd. We didn't do this intentionally. If we really knew these cows were slow breeders and were producing a calf, not every year, but every 18 to 20 months, we'd sure put wheels under them, but our program isn't such that we can spot them. "Oh, yes, she produced a calf, let's see, when was it? -- a pretty good calf, too, as I recall."

But what is happening is that those 15 or 20 cows are skipping a calf every second or third year just from being slow breeders. This means that we've been spending that $350 on them every year, and one year out of two or three, they've not been bringing a calf to the pen. That increases the burden of production on the other 80 or 85 cows that do produce as they should by from 10 to 12.5 percent per year. So instead of requiring them to give us $390-calves to get us to break even, our good producers now have to produce calves worth $412 to $435 to do the same job.

The big excuse for leaving the bulls out is that the program is already in effect. If we put them on a fixed breeding season, we are going to miss at least one calf out of quite a number of them for at least one year and maybe more.

That is true to some extent, but this can be minimized and whatever is lost should be considered an investment that will pay dividends. My suggestions for getting cows of this sort on a regular breeding season is to pick up the bulls. Then return them to service on or about January 1. Leave them out until the end of February and pick them up. Put them out, again, on May 1, and leave them with the cows until July 1.

You should pick up the vast majority of your fertile cows during those two breeding periods and establish your breeding seasons for fall and spring calving within a single year. You will miss a few that will carry over to be bred during the following season the first year, but these are cows you should suspect and watch. Any of the cows we didn't catch that don't turn up pregnant the season after that should be culled and replaced.

Thereafter, any cow that doesn't breed in her normal breeding season should be tagged, for life. If she ever misses, again, she should be shipped. In other words, circumstances can make a cow miss one calf. If she misses a second time, for any reason, it should be considered habit. Any cow that can be considered profitable should conceive in 60 days with the bulls, provided she has had the proper immunizations and is on an adequate plain of nutrition.

Once a producer has shortened his calving seasons to two, 60-day seasons, he can take advantage of marketing opportunities, and he'll have a much better handle on what his cows are really producing.

Many good managers, once they have taken this step will want to concentrate their breeding and calving even further. They will gradually cull off the cattle in either the spring or fall calving groups and replace them with cattle that will bring them into the single, 60-day calving season they believe is best for their operation. This takes time, but over the long haul it will get him a more productive and profitable herd of cows.

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