Are there healthier calves and higher profits in your future?

Preg checking, pain mitigation, and preconditioning all 
open avenues to better and more profitable performance

The cows have come home from summer pasture and the fall run is well underway.

So how was your year? If you’re not happy and want better performance and more profits next year, here are three top tips from two experts.

Precision feeding and targeted marketing

Just 60 per cent of producers pregnancy check their cows, according to the 2015 Western Canada Cow-Calf survey.

There are a few reasons why this number isn’t higher, said Dr. Blake Balog of Bow Valley Livestock Clinic in Brooks.

Related Articles

“Some of those people have never done it (because) Grandpa never did it, so they’re not going to do it,” he said. “And there is a certain percentage that didn’t answer that because, they don’t use a vet, they do it themselves. There is a majority of those guys who ‘preg check’ in the spring, meaning they don’t have an actual preg checking done, they just cull the open cows in the springtime.”

Not having enough labour or time are two main reasons why producers don’t preg check. But if you’re doing some form of parasite control, then it’s easy to have your vet check if cows are pregnant, said Balog. He prefers using ultrasound technology, which is faster and works in a variety of different chute setups.

“It also allows me to see other abnormalities quite easily (and) it’s much more objective, rather than the palpation method,” he said. “It allows me to see visually what is going on in the reproductive tract. It also offers the ability for fetal sexing or other things that would be useful for the producer.”

Knowing which cows are pregnant gives the producer better marketing options.

“Are you culling them right away, or are you able to overwinter those (open) cows? What are the markets looking like to marketing these cows a little bit later? Maybe you want to feed them up, put some more pounds on them, and sell them in the spring instead.”

Having a yes or no diagnosis allows you to know if you have enough feed and to match feed requirements to gestational stages.

“If we are pregnancy checking early enough we can stage the gestation,” said Balog. “Are there early-calving cows? Are there late-calving cows? Some guys like to know when (approximately) they are going to be calving so they are able to manage the cows slightly different with feeding and nutrition, and who is going to be calving first or last so they can have them in different areas and monitor them throughout the calving season. It allows them to focus their attention and nutrition better.”

Gestational staging also gives a marketing advantage by allowing a producer to keep the cows calving within their calving window and marketing bred cows outside of that window. It can also be a determining factor of whether or not a producer is going to keep an older cow around for another year, if she’s calving early or late, Balog said.

Pregnancy checking is also a good time to strengthen the veterinary-client-patient relationship.

“Sometimes we are hard to pin down in the office,” he said. “If we’re out there preg checking it’s a convenient time to have a herd health review, too. It’s another opportunity to have those cows come through the chute and have a good look at them.”

Make money doing the ‘right thing’

Pain mitigation has taken a dramatic upturn since Balog started in his practice four years ago.

“I came out at the time that Metacam and Meloxicam were starting to be used in the cow-calf industry. Those two products have been the biggest growth areas, in terms of products, that we sell in our practice.”

Once producers start using pain mitigation, they quickly realize the benefits, he said.

“When we give these products, we see a visible difference in how (animals) respond to the pain — it’s an amazing change in their perspective,” he said.

Close to one-third of his clients this year used some form of pain control when branding, and more and more employ it when castrating older-age calves and during dehorning.

“They are using it on just about anything that is painful. Whether it be pneumonia or scours or inflammation, they are trying to control, they are thinking about those type of things. It’s actually amazing the number of calves with broken legs that are brought in to me that have already received a dose of pain medicine.

Putting a precise dollar figure on the benefits of pain control isn’t possible “but there is a lot of indirect benefits,” he said.

“It’s the right thing to do and we need to be proactive in this industry right now because consumers are paying more attention to where there food comes from.”

Pain mitigation should be viewed as “the cost of doing business,” said Dr. Joe Stookey of the University of Saskatchewan.

But it’s one with a payback, he adds.

It’s hard to put a precise dollar figure on the benefits of pain mitigation but it’s something that all producers should be doing, says Joe Stookey.

It’s hard to put a precise dollar figure on the benefits of pain mitigation but it’s something that all producers should be doing, says Joe Stookey.
photo: Courtesy Joe Stookey

“We’ll have the (increased) weight gain — that’s classic,” said Stookey. “And if they perform better weight gain, then we know that it is profitable. But there are other outcome measures like how do they feel? What’s that worth? It’s hard to put a dollar value on that. But if they feel better and they get up (more quickly), that’s worth something.”

Many protest the move to pain medication by saying we got along without it for so long, why do we have to do it now? That’s a weak excuse, said Stookey.

“We are assuming that our forefathers wouldn’t have done it either, but they didn’t have the option,” he said. “I think if you would have brought this to them, they would have done it. This is the right thing to do.

“Where else in agriculture do we not adopt new technology? Pain mitigation, to me, is modern technology. It’s something we now have available to us, and the public expects us to use it.”

An easy way to get healthier calves

Preconditioning your calves has both a downside and upside, said Balog.

You need proper infrastructure and going through the process means both a delay in getting a cheque for their calves and increased risk of death loss.

“But the upsides are definitely huge on the health side of things,” said Balog. “Cold weaning calves is an extremely stressful event.”

Stookey agrees.

“The science is quite clear, they are healthier calves,” he said.

The biggest drawback is that preconditioned calves only fetch a small premium at best, and often none at all.

“It is one reason why we have invested so much of our time in studying two-stage weaning because we believe calves benefit from the procedure, without the producer having to invest so much in extra time, feed and facilities,” said Stookey.

With two-stage weaning, calves are fitted with a plastic “nose flap” tag which doesn’t allow them to nurse but still allows them to be with their mother. After four to seven days, the nose flap is removed and calves are weaned as normal.

But you need to have a facility for processing the calves and it also means running them through a chute twice.

“Handling them twice, people don’t like that,” said Stookey. “But I know from our study that two-stage weaning puts those calves at an advantage. And we’re thinking that it puts them in an advantage too, going to the feedlot, as well as right off the cows. It’s sort of like preconditioning on the cow. We still have to do the study.”

Stookey is looking at further studying the health of the calves in the feedlot after two-stage weaning.

“I’m really hopeful that two-stage weaning will be the next preconditioning without all the risk and expense,” said Stookey.

About the author


Jill Burkhardt, her husband, Kelly, and their two children, own and operate a mixed farm near Gwynne, Alberta. Originally hailing from Montana, she has a degree in Range Management from Montana State University. Jill’s agricultural passions are cattle and range management but she enjoys writing and learning more about all aspects of farming.



Stories from our other publications