Protect or Redirect
Protect your reputation as a good stocker operator — make sure the heifers you send to the feedlot aren't carrying problem calves. Consider redirecting pregnant heifers to a breeding herd.
By Lorie Woodward Cantu
Editor's Note: This is the sixth installment in a 12-part series on stocker cattle management. This series has been created in partnership with Chris McClure, Gold Standard Labs (bvd-pi.com), a lab services company based in Hereford that specializes in BVD-PI testing and blood pregnancy tests; and Danna Schwenk and Karla Whitmore, CattleXpert Management Software (cattlexpert.com), a software company based in Elkhorn, Neb., that specializes in feedlot and stocker management applications.
For a buyer seeking replacement heifers, pregnancy is a selling point. For a buyer wanting feeder heifers, pregnancy is a potentially expensive headache. For a stocker operator, the issue of pregnant heifers cannot be ignored.
"If a pregnant animal is not part of your operational game plan, then she represents a loss of efficiency whether she's grazing in a green patch or standing in a feedlot," said Neal Odom, a technical representative for IDEXX Laboratories, who is based in Wellington. "No one, at any stage of the beef production chain, can afford to ignore efficiency."
Nowhere is that more apparent than in feedlots, the primary consumers for stocker cattle. Because feedlots are in the meat production business, not the cow-calf business, pregnant heifers negatively impact efficiency — and the bottom line — in many ways, said Odom, who also ranches and is a former feedlot manager.
Negative impacts include reduced feed efficiency, dystocia or calving problems, infections due to calving and terminated pregnancies, increased labor and medical costs, and increased death loss. It has been estimated that a pregnant heifer that calves in a feedlot costs the feeder approximately $150 to $200 because of the such difficulties.
Pregnant heifers also pose a risk to a feedlot's reputation for quality within the meat packing industry, Odom said. In the realm of meat packing, dressing percentage of beef carcasses is an important element for feedlot operators and packers, because it establishes the weight upon which payment is calculated for animals sold on a live-weight basis.
A higher dressing percentage, which translates into a higher yielding carcass, is better for both feedlot operators and packers.
Heifers' dressing percentages are usually 1.5 to 2 percent lower than that of steers at a similar fat level. Pregnant heifers have an even lower dressing percentage than open heifers because the fetus, embryonic tissues and fluids increase weight without increasing retail pounds of beef, making them much less desirable.
Pregnancy also increases the risk of death loss for fat heifers. The heifers often succumb to complications of calving just as they are reaching 1,000 pounds, their marketable weight, which represents a total loss of all the time, labor, medicine and feed invested in them, he said.
"From a feedlot perspective, pregnant heifers are a real headache," Odom said. "Open heifers are a more desirable product."
With that said, Odom cautions that the ability to deliver open heifers does not guarantee a substantial premium.
"The ability to deliver open heifers is valuable, but it may simply mean that you get your asking price, instead of having to take the standard price the feedlot manager is offering," Odom said. Feedlot managers are going to be skeptical of "guaranteed open heifers" because many people use that as a selling point and, yet, come spring feedlots have heifers calving, and all the problems that implies, he said.
In the long run, consistently delivering a usable product will enhance the stocker operator's reputation in the feedlot industry, which, as in other parts of the beef industry, is dependent on good relationships, he said.
"From my perspective, chasing after a premium is not the reason to incorporate pregnancy prevention and pregnancy testing into a stocker operation," Odom said. "Increasing efficiency and improving your ability to make good management decisions should be the driving force behind it."
Today, because of a convergence of factors, pregnancy testing makes more sense than ever before for stocker operators, he said. First, feedlots want bigger cattle; therefore, stocker operators are running older and heavier cattle, where the risk for unintentional pregnancy is high. In Odom's experience, heifers weighing between 575 pounds and 625 pounds are prime candidates for pregnancy testing.
"While it is impossible to accurately predict when an individual animal will reach sexual maturity, heifers weighing between 575 pounds and 625 pounds are the bovine equivalent of junior high students — they can blossom at any moment," he said.
With that in mind, his preferred management strategy is pregnancy testing heifers in that weight range upon their arrival, so he knows the status of each individual animal. Three methods of pregnancy testing are widely used within the industry — ultrasound, rectal palpation and blood testing. According to Odom, they are all about equally cost-effective.
Odom's preferred pregnancy check is blood testing, because of its accuracy and convenience. A variety of blood tests exist, some of which can detect pregnancy as early as 28 days, with a 99.3 percent accuracy rate. While the tests are highly accurate in determining pregnancy, they cannot determine how far the pregnancy has progressed, he said. Odom pulls the blood samples himself so he doesn't have to work around other people's schedules.
"Taking a blood sample is very straightforward, and I can do it when it's convenient for me," Odom said. The blood samples are sent to a laboratory, and the individual results, identified by ear tag number, are sent back to Odom. The solid information allows him to make appropriate management decisions.
With pregnant heifers, a manager can proceed in a couple of ways. The pregnancy can be terminated or the heifers can be redirected as replacement heifers.
"With the current shortage of replacement females, there is a window of opportunity to potentially capitalize on what many people consider a liability," Odom said. "People who have the flexibility to seize opportunities are successful."
Open heifers are managed so that they don't get pregnant, he said. The primary strategy is also the most obvious — keep males and females separate. This is a good strategy whether you are talking about intact males or steers, he said.
"Obviously, bulls breed heifers when they're in proximity, but steers can have a negative impact, as well," Odom said. "When heifers begin cycling, steers get curious and they all begin engaging in behavior that ‘walks the weight off of them,' making them less efficient."
Again, efficiency is the name of the game, whether a person is in the stocker business or the feedlot business, he said.
"If I test the heifers on arrival, have objective results derived from the most accurate technology available, and I have kept the heifers completely segregated from males, then I have something saleable," he said. "I have a product that I can stand behind, because those heifers are as efficient as I can make them."
"Stocker Cattle: Protect or Redirect" is from the June 2012 issue of The Cattleman magazine.