The first calf heifer is one of the most challenging animals in the cowherd for a number of reasons, says Warren Rusche, South Dakota State University cow/calf field specialist.
"The largest challenges are dealing with potential calving difficulties and getting her re-bred on time," he says. "Getting her successfully re-bred is a challenge under the best of circumstances."
Rusche says the stakes are even higher for producers this season, given significantly greater values of bred heifers and bred cows. A first calf heifer that either loses her calf or fails to re-breed could easily lose half her value when she's marketed as a cull compared to being retained on the balance sheet as a bred female, he says.
"Any steps that can be taken to minimize those losses will help us hold the line on the expense of cow depreciation and replacement costs," he adds.
Where to begin
Preventing calf death loss at calving either from calving difficulty or from disease or environmental stress is the obvious place to start when we are trying to increase our income and minimize our need for replacements, Rusche says.
The effect that calving difficulty has on re-breeding success of a first calf heifer isn't as obvious as death loss, but drives up costs just the same because of higher culling rates. In a Meat Animal Research Center study, he says, the conception rate during a 70-day breeding season for heifers that had trouble calving was 16% lower compared to those that calved unassisted (85% versus 69%).
"When we add up all the costs associated with calving difficulty, including death loss, veterinarian and labor expenses, plus the potential for lowered reproductive success, it becomes very clear that calving difficulty in heifers is an expensive proposition, even more so in today's market," Rusche says.
Although there isn't anything that can be done to change the genetics in place for this year's calf crop, producers can plan to maximize chances for success during calving season with a few considerations. Rusche suggests:
• Be prepared. Have the facilities and all necessary equipment ready and available in plenty of time. That first heifer usually comes faster than expected.
• Have a plan. Think about what could (or will) go wrong during calving season and how you might be able to address those problems. Recognize when you may need to call for some assistance from your veterinarian. Research data has shown that heifers that were assisted as soon as the feet or water bag were visible had a 19% greater pregnancy rate than those who went through a prolonged labor.
• Sanitation is important but often overlooked. Anytime we're assisting the calving process, we're introducing pathogens into the reproductive tract. Some steps we can take include cleaning the cow before entering, using OB sleeves and disinfecting the equipment after use.
None of this is new or particularly earth-shattering information, Rusche asserts. But he points out that the market environment producers are operating in this year is new, where every calf and every bred female are worth much more than has been seen in a while.
"Small improvements in outcomes will have a much larger financial impact than we've seen before," Rusche concludes.