While the cattle industry enjoys some of its highest record-setting years, challenges remain in maintaining or increasing cow numbers due to higher bred cow and heifer values, says Jim Krantz, cow/calf specialist for South Dakota State University Extension.
However, using some existing management practices that cater to the needs of veteran-producing cows within the herd may extend their productive lives and contribute to the sustainability of the cow/calf enterprise, Krantz adds.
The current market situation is a result of a multitude of factors, starting with a shrinking cow inventory. The Jan. 1, 2013, U.S. cow inventory totals documented a 60-year low in stock cow numbers, Krantz explains, and that trend is expected to continue into 2014.
Factors contributing to the trend include drought, escalating feed costs, farmer/rancher age and the conversion of hay and pasture land to crop acres, he says. However, helping to cushion higher input costs and weather patterns, cattle prices have reached record levels.
That scenario has many cattlemen faced with the dilemma of retaining additional replacement heifers to build herd totals or purchasing bred cows or heifers, but Krantz says an overlooked option could be extending the productive life of older stock cows.
Five options for extending the stock cow's productive life
Krantz recommends five best practices for extending the productive life of stock cows and the herd:
1. Place older cows on a dry lot to add about a year or two to their lives. Krantz says according to the USDA's 2007-2008 National Animal Health Monitoring System survey, about one-third of culled cows are culled because of age or limited/no teeth. Under drylot management systems, at least some of these cows may have an extended future due to delivered diets of high quality feeds and a little special care, Krantz adds.
2. Mate older cows to bulls with average or below expected progeny difference figures for birth weight. This should allow older cows to calve unassisted and be reproductively sound during the next breeding season, Krantz says.
3. Provide older cows with comprehensive internal and external parasite control. Fly control is a must, Krantz says, even if cows remain on grass. Lice control is also essential.
4. Sort cows by body condition score and manage them based on nutrition need. While Krantz says this practice is advisable during the last trimester of pregnancy, it may offer extended production years for older cows during other segments of the cattle cycle. In addition, selecting a group of older cows to be fed separately year round, including the use of pastures with higher quality grasses for short periods of time may keep them in the herd longer, Krantz says.
5. Manage replacements. If fewer young cows are culled due to reproductive failure, that should reduce the culling rate and make maintaining or expanding cow number easier and less expensive, Krantz adds.