by: Clifford Mitchell

In today's challenging economic environment, pinching pennies here and there has become somewhat of a way of life. Everyone, from businessmen to housewives, is looking for ways to save a dollar or make the most of their available resources. Re-thinking many basic decisions to help utilize what is available.

In the beef business, there is generally a small window of opportunity or a slim margin for error. Obvious things, like genetics and management, are easy investments to make. However some lose sight of things that seem of lesser importance. Each year, depending on several factors, cattlemen have different resources available to them. A shift in the weather pattern could decrease available feed resources. Small changes in the market may also provide challenges from a cash flow standpoint. Keeping the revenue and expense column balanced is still the number one goal.

Adapting the management plan to different scenarios may help cattlemen increase chances for profit. Herd health is always somewhat of a challenge for producers to see if dollars spent actually show up as increased revenues.

“There are a lot of operations, for some reason, that aren't doing some of the basic things to improve productivity,” says Dr. John Davidson, Texas A & M University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

The beef industry continues to rely on specialists to help increase productivity and streamline management. Taking advantage of the local veterinarian may help producers' fine tune herd health strategies and improve the bottom line.

“Many cattle operations view herd health as an expense rather than an investment. Establish a good working relationship with your veterinarian, rather than just have them out for emergencies,” Davidson says. “Spend time developing a basic herd health calendar. There is no cookbook health program, but we can tailor a basic herd health program for each operation. If your veterinarian is aware of your needs, odds are those things will get done on time.”

“Work with your local vet and find out what works. One plan won't work for everyone. I have an experienced crew, we'll visit and talk with the vet to set up our herd health calendar,” says Roland Starnes, Kensington Cattle Co., Woodbury, Ga.

Defining problem areas is a good place to start. Utilizing herd records and animal identification coupled with some basic principles of herd health could be the answer.

“When producers set up a herd health calendar it is a chance to identify problem areas or apply correct timing of certain vaccinations that affect productivity,” Davidson says. “Develop a bio security plan, ID and track cattle movement into pastures. For herd health to be successful producers have to have adequate records. Absence of animal ID and herd records weakens the herd health program. Basic herd health events can't be performed without these components.”

“We have been on the same vaccine schedule for years. We work cattle in the spring and fall. It's so routine I know what supplies I need to have on hand and I don't order any more than what we're going to use,” says Bill Felton, Cain Cattle Co. at Coldwater Ranch, Holly Springs, Mississippi.

For most, reproductive efficiency is still the number one indicator of profit. This is an easy thing for a lot of producers to see. Increasing the number of bred cows is an ongoing challenge because things like genetics, nutrition, management and weather play an important role.

“I can control management, herd health and nutrition. We have to do the best job in these areas that we can. I can't control weather patterns and this year has been tough. You have to have genetics that work in your environment. Herd health just enhances your ability to make cows work,” Starnes says. “Open cows cost money and we have to do everything we can to prevent that. We give modified live vaccines (MLV) pre-breeding. Pregnancy checking allows you to get rid of problem cows.”

“We have gotten along fine using vaccines with the killed virus. This allows us to vaccinate for several strains of reproductive diseases and has done a great job of maintaining pregnancies,” Felton says. “Nobody would have dreamed we would have had as bad of winter as we had. Sometimes this is a blessing in disguise, because it helps you identify cattle that are money makers. Cattle tend to separate themselves in tougher years.”

“Recently, we performed breeding soundness exams and trich tests on well over 100 bulls for a client with a complaint of a shrinking calf crop. Though the bill was significant, it was easily justified, raising the weaned calf crop by one percent, more than pays for identifying the large number of bulls needing to be culled. Studies have shown that bull batteries tested to the standards of the Society for Theriogenology (SFT) will outperform those batteries that go untested in first service conception and overall pregnancy rates,” Davidson says. “Getting your vet involved with herd health can improve pregnancy rates and pounds weaned per cow exposed.”

A long standing debate has been to use MLV or killed vaccines. Products or brand names may not be as important as timing and following label instructions.

“For some producers, picking herd health products can be a challenge when considering all of the options available in today's market. For the most part, whose product you choose is not as important as the proper timing and administration of animal health products,” Davidson says. “Not giving vaccines and performing herd procedures at the right time can lead to unsatisfactory results. If you have a herd health calendar in place, you can identify opportunities to use different vaccines because herd health is provided at the right time. Follow the label instructions when dealing with these products. The key to preventative herd health is maximizing immunity with disease challenge.”

“We have to be careful how we handle vaccines,” Starnes says. “I buy 10 dose vials of the MLV and we swap needles with every shot.”

“I buy 50 dose bottles of the killed virus when we purchase supplies,” Felton says. “We're dealing with so many numbers, this works best for us. The main thing is not to carry it over. Only buy what you're going to use when you work those cows.”

Different operations rely on different management protocols to produce the most profitable product. As management increases, sometimes herd health becomes more sophisticated.

“Every calf gets vaccinated at two months of age and then we'll booster them again while they're on the cow before weaning,” Starnes says. “We try to be 100 percent AI. We get cows up twice a day to do this and sometimes calves start breaking because of man made stress. The timing of the vaccinations is critical to help these calves stay healthy.”

“A herd health calendar will help producers find a window to maximize the value of herd health,” Davidson says. “Calfhood sickness and disease definitely has an impact on future performance.”

Vaccination schedules can also be tailored to certain problems within the herd or the historical challenges of certain areas. As producers find out more about the cow herd, a simple change or addition to that calendar could eliminate a train wreck.

“If you can prevent calves from getting sick or help a few more survive there is money to be made. If a lot of calves are getting sick or something like scours becomes a problem there is another opportunity to vaccinate cows in a timely manner,” Davidson says. “In certain cases, a pre-calving scour vaccination could help some operations.”

“We give a Scour Guard pre-calving to all first and second calf heifers. Depending on the year we might vaccinate mature cows too,” Starnes says. “Our pre-breeding vaccinations help pregnancy rates. In a total AI program, it's important to us in the seedstock business to settle a high percentage of those cows.”

“Knowing the challenges and the history of what's in an area helps a lot. We vaccinate twice a year for blackleg so we get that immunity passed on to the calves. Sometimes when we bring in outside cattle that weren't on the same regime, we see how important this is,” Felton says. “Another challenge for us is we operate four ranches from north Mississippi to the Gulf Coast. We have to have a plan and make it standard operating procedure. We have to be on the same page when we co-mingle cattle from the different ranches that are 300 miles apart.”

Parasite control is another piece of the puzzle when it comes to herd health. Changing product and utilizing de-wormers that help cattle utilize available forage helps overall management.

“We de-worm when we work in the spring and fall,” Felton says. “We use an injectable in the spring because we're catching heads on every animal through the chute. We use a pour-on in the fall. It's a good rotation and has worked well for us.”

“Our health program is a combination of vaccinating a de-worming at the proper time,” Starnes says. “Cattle are de-wormed twice a year and we really probably need to up that to three times per year to get the best results.”

Commercial producers who do not pregnancy check or perform breeding soundness exams on herd bulls could be leaving dollars on the table.

“Make sure you perform breeding soundness exams on herd bulls timely enough where you can find suitable replacements. Preg checking cows can also be a wise investment,” Davidson says. “If you find out you have a bad bull or two late in the buying season you could be forced to purchase inferior bulls from a genetics standpoint. If trich is a problem in your area, you need to test problem candidates before it becomes a real problem.”

Most view nutrition or body condition score as a separate component and it does not fall under herd health. To overall management this could be categorized like this, but a simple evaluation could help accomplish production goals.

“Sometimes the cure is not in a bottle. We have to continually evaluate body condition score,” Starnes says. “We don't want to calve cows when they're too fat or too thin. They have to be in the right body condition to calve and breed back in a timely manner. A good mineral program also helps overall herd health.”

“There is something to do all the time when you're managing the cow herd if you want to keep production costs in line,” Felton says. “We have to stay on top of body condition score or it will cost you in the long run. The key to maintaining proper condition is you have to see it before she shows you, otherwise you're already behind.”

As producers get better control of production costs, labor is another high input expense to the outfit. Operations have to be aware each time a cow is handled it weighs heavily from a cost standpoint.

“Combine herd health tasks if you can. The operation will become more efficient,” Starnes says. “Nobody likes to handle cows more than they have to. Keep an eye on the weather. Make sure you handle cattle in a timely manner.”

“We always have to be concerned about the number of times cattle are being handled,” Davidson says. “Herd health calendars will help producers identify the time of year when they need to perform herd health procedures. Handle those cattle enough to improve productivity and match your vaccination program with disease challenge.”

As cattlemen continually evaluate the bottom line, there are always going to be areas where the “belt can be tightened.” For most, it becomes a question of cutting corners or actual savings.

Make sure saving a buck does not cloud the big picture. Maintaining a sound bottom line will justify expenditures in key production areas.

“Producers with accurate records can figure out a compromise that justifies the number of times cattle are put through the chute, product cost and vet expense,” Davidson says. “Can producers afford not to do these things because of labor expense and vet cost? When you're marketing live calves most operations can't afford not to do basic herd health that will help productivity. With rising production costs, operations aren't going to be competitive anymore when they wean a 70 percent calf crop.”

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