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What did the Drought do to my Calving Season?

Memories of the fall of 2016 and its impacts on pasture availability and cow nutritional status are still fresh on most every Alabama cattle producer’s mind.  As fall calving programs move past the breeding season and spring programs focus on this important time, many producers are likely scratching their heads as to what impacts the drought may have on their cowherd’s breeding season success. This is rightly so, as lowered grazing availability likely led to some loss of body condition in many herds, and stand loss may leave some producers without adequate summer forage emergence.

The drought’s effects on your herd’s breeding season can be closely tied to the nutrition you were able to provide your animals to maintain their body condition score (BCS) throughout the calving and breeding season. Cows that calved at BCS lower than five could have experienced poor performance in the breeding season for two reasons:

1. Cows that calve at a BCS lower than five take more time to return to cycling than their BCS 5+ herdmates. Expect thin animals at calving to take an added 20+ days to return to cycling past their appropriately conditioned herdmates.

2.Animals that have a BCS lower than five during the breeding season experience lower pregnancy rates per breeding. Animals of BCS 4 or lower may experience a conception rate 10-30% lower than their BCS 5+ pasture mates.

Follow these two links (link 1, link 2) to learn more about BCS and its impact on pregnancy outcomes in your herd.

These facts are helpful in managing cattle to have a successful breeding season, but if the season has passed and you are questioning exactly what impact the drought had on your operation’s reproductive success, keep this factor in mind:  

You can know the pregnancy status of your herd quickly and economically. It is extremely important to perform annual pregnancy examination in your herd to identify and cull open cows. However if you are resistant to pregnancy check your herd, keep in mind that this year may be the most important year to implement this management practice. If cows became thin during the breeding season and you move forward on “faith alone” until calving time, there is a very high chance that you will experience lower calving rates than you had hoped for or seen in previous years. Pregnancy check cows 60 days after the conclusion of the breeding season or at calf weaning time to gain a true perspective on your herd’s reproductive status. With no pregnancy exam, you may feed open cows for 6-7 months before realizing that there is a problem. Without this information, you cannot manage your herd for profit potential as you look into the near future. Click here to read more about pregnancy exam options and how such knowledge can impact your herd.

Once you know your herd’s pregnancy status, you can make management decisions to increase your profitability outlook. You will also have tools to help you cull appropriate animals if the drought returns.

1. You will know which cows are not doing their job. Regardless of your breeding season existence or length, cows that are not pregnant by the time of traditional  calf weaning are not performing up to par. These animals are keeping you from reaching your profit potential and are consuming resources away from their herdmates. They need to go – even if they may become pregnant after weaning. Keeping such animals will only lower your herd’s overall reproductive performance and slowly suck dollars from you bottom line.

2.You will know what to expect for the upcoming calving season. If the drought led to thin cows at calving and breeding, you may have a higher percentage of late calving animals. Knowing your expected calving distribution will help you divide your manpower at calving time and begin thinking of a plan for calf marketing and how to manage cows to calve earlier in subsequent years.

3. You can combine body condition scoring with pregnancy examination to help identify thin, pregnant cows that may need additional supplementation to improve their condition before calving. Remember, we want cows to calve at a BCS 5-6. Post weaning is the best time to improve condition on thin cows. Evaluate your pasture availability and consider your ability to get weight on thin cows. Keep in mind that cows should gain about 80 pounds to improve one BCS. It is critical to return thin cows to an acceptable BCS before calving to limit the negative impacts of last year’s drought on your herd. If you do not have adequate pasture for such gains, you will need to supplement feed. Thin, pregnant cows with low production records may be a logical culling option if pasture availability is low and you do not have the resources to supplement feed.

If you have a large number of open cows at pregnancy check, you may be faced with hard decisions. There are several options to successfully move past this disheartening news:

1. Evaluate your cowherd. Discover possible reasons for the very low pregnancy rates. What is the herd average BCS? Were many cows of all ages open, or just your 2-3 year olds? What is the bull’s BCS and age? What was your bull:cow ratio? Did the bulls pass a breeding soundness exam before the breeding season?

2.Thin cows can be expected to gain weight at calf weaning if adequate grazing or supplement is available. If calves are still nursing and you are early in the breeding season, consider early weaning to allow cows to gain weight and hopefully avoid the low pregnancy rates we are currently discussing. Follow these two links to learn more about early weaning options (link 1, link 2)

3. If your breeding season is well over, consider the advantages and disadvantages of converting to a spring and fall calving season. In some herds, this management scheme works extremely well. Thin, open cows at this year’s pregnancy check can be moved to the opposite breeding season to reduce culling rates and still maintain a defined calving season. It is important to maintain a strict culling of animals in subsequent years to avoid creating a “reproductively lazy” herd. Using this second breeding season to strategically produce bred cows for sale versus open cull cows is also a viable option.

4.Retain your high standards. If your pasture availability is very low and you need lower stocking rates for your fields to recover, these open cows may be just your ticket. Culling of higher than normal numbers of open cows will lead to an increase in immediate monetary intake while decreasing your stocking rates for the near future as your pasture recovers. Rebuild your herd as your forages recover.

If the drought wreaked havoc on your breeding season, remember that it may take a few years to return to an ideal breeding season length. However, through proper management strategies of correct nutrition, strict culling, and replacing open or late calving animals with early calving heifers or purchased cows you can recover your herd from possible impacts of the 2016 drought.

If you have questions about determining and improving your herd’s reproductive performance, contact myself or other members of the ACES Animal Science and Forages Team.

Sarah Dickinson, M.S.

Regional Extension Agent I – Animal Science & Forages

Alabama Cooperative Extension System

Ph.D. Student – Reproductive Physiology / Molecular Genomics

Cell: 256-537-0024

Office: 256-825-1050

Email:sed0029@auburn.edu

Serving Chambers, Clay, Cleburne, Coosa, Lee, Randolph, Shelby, Talladega, and Tallapoosa Counties