There’s progress but best practices often ignored

A deep dive into 
uptake of recommended cow-calf practices shows ‘there’s room for improvement’

‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ seems to be the common thread among cow-calf producers who haven’t yet adopted recommended practices on their own operations.

Brenna Grant.
photo: Supplied

“Producers are happy with the performance and productivity that they’ve been getting, so they see no reason to change,” said Brenna Grant, manager of Canfax Research Services.

“That can actually be a very risky approach. When you have a wreck, frequently it’s very late by the time it’s identified, and the losses are very large. So adopting these practices is more about prevention and managing risk.

“Given the amount of risk we have in the marketplace, being able to manage it in other places can really make a difference for some producers.”

Canfax and the Beef Cattle Research Council recently examined the uptake of beneficial practices — amalgamating info from past cow-calf surveys and research to provide a comprehensive pan-Canadian look at the sector.

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“This was all in an effort to improve productivity, reduce costs, and improve the profitability and overall resilience of the cow-calf sector,” said Grant.

“But there’s no blanket recommendation of ‘producers must do X, Y, or Z.’ These practices are recommended because the research has shown that they have a significant impact on the overall profitability of the operation.

“They may not be suitable for everyone, but we definitely want to be encouraging producers to be looking at the options that they have available so that we have a strong and resilient sector.”

And while the needle is moving on some of the recommended practices, others have been sliding backwards — and researchers aren’t sure why.

“It’s not necessarily that the adoption rates are lower than we’d like, but rather, we’re seeking to have a greater understanding of why the adoption rates are at where they’re at,” said Grant.

“It’s really only until you understand why producers are not adopting something that you can actually address that barrier.”

Moving the needle

In many cases, though, the trends are going in the right direction.

Kathy Larson.
photo: Supplied

“It was good to see that we have been improving over the years,” said University of Saskatchewan research associate Kathy Larson, an editor on the report.

“I think we have lots of good news stories to share, as well as areas where we can make changes.”

One of those is the increasing rate at which producers are pregnancy checking. In Western Canada, two-thirds of producers preg check their cattle, a practice steadily rising over the past 30 years.

“This is a practice I strongly feel is recommended — we should be doing it every year at increasing rates,” said Larson.

But it’s not realistic to expect an adoption rate of 100 per cent, added Grant.

“We know that reproductive efficiency is a major contributor to cow-calf profitability, but we have to consider the trade-offs,” she said. “We have seen good adoption of preg checking right across Canada, but we also need to recognize that the decision to preg check is going to be influenced by winter feeding practices and markets.

“But it is a tool that producers can be using to make management and marketing decisions to make the best use of both feed resources and the seasonality of the market.”

Other practices — particularly those “sensitive” for the general public — are also trending in the right direction. One is the adoption of pain mitigation for painful procedures.

“When it was benchmarked in the 2014 cow-calf survey, adoption was there, but it was really low,” said Grant. “In the 2017 cow-calf survey in Western Canada, we saw that that’s really increased. Basically across the board, about half of producers are engaged in pain mitigation either some or all of the time.

“I think that’s a great reflection of communication, but also of producers realizing that this is something they need to be doing.”

Producers are even changing their breeding programs to eliminate some painful procedures — such as dehorning — altogether. Today, most calves are polled in 86 to 89 per cent of herds, and the number of cattle with horns at slaughter has decreased from 40 per cent in 1994-95 to 9.5 per cent in 2016-17.

“We’re finding that producers are making sure to incorporate polled animals in their herds so they don’t even have to dehorn,” said Larson. “It’s just a sign of the times.”

So is the shift away from abrupt weaning, she added.

“The use of an abrupt wean — where you just take the calves off the moms — is traditional, but we’re seeing increasing rates of producers doing things like a natural wean or a fenceline wean or the nose-paddle two-stage wean so that it’s less stressful on the calf and the cow,” said Larson.

Adoption of low-stress weaning techniques increased from 28 per cent in 2014 to 45 per cent in 2017.

“Over a very short period of time, that’s a very positive shift,” said Grant. “We’re recognizing that there are things that can be done in order to reduce stress at weaning and ensure we have a healthy calf going on feed.”

Negative trends

But producers are backsliding in other important areas, including forage rejuvenation.

Though the data is limited, the report suggests more producers are waiting longer before reseeding, or not reseeding at all. In Western Canada, the number who don’t rejuvenate at all has increased to 33 per cent, and 51 per cent of Alberta producers hadn’t broken up their stands at all in the five years before the 2017 survey.

“Over time, your pasture and hay lands deplete in their productivity, and you have to find ways to rejuvenate them, whether that be sod seeding or breaking and reseeding or applying fertilizer to get the productivity back,” said Larson.

“We do see that’s an area that still requires research and extension on ways that producers can do that.”

One reason might be more producers are renting land.

“If you only have an annual agreement, you don’t want to make investments that will have a multi-year payback,” said Larson. “Producers are not going to make the investments in something that’s not their land.”

Water quality testing also has very low rates of adoption, she added.

“It should really be top of mind on the Prairies where we’ve had drought the last couple of years,” she said. “You need to make sure you know the quality of the water that your cattle are accessing, especially if it’s from open sources like a dugout.

“But 60 per cent of producers in Canada do not test their water quality, so we have to find ways to change that.”

And while vaccination rates in general are very high, “there’s room for improvement,” said Grant. More than one-quarter of producers in Western Canada don’t vaccinate their cows for reproductive diseases, and there are lower vaccination levels for bulls across the board.

“Vaccination is a proven tool for disease prevention, so there is some expectation among extension people that there should be a 99 to 100 per cent adoption on it,” she said.

“But there’s not, and that really shows that we’re not using it as an industry to its full potential.”

Barriers to adoption

The reasons for that are still unclear.

Now that the report is complete, the research team will be working to “tease out” the reasons why.

“Is it something to do with age? Is it something to do with herd size? Or does it have to do with farm income? There have been lots of studies done on this in the U.S., but not so many in Canada,” said Larson.

In some cases, age might be a factor.

“We have older producers — I think the average age is 55 — so they’re not necessarily going to make a big change because, to them, they’re nearing the end of when they’re going to be in the livestock business.”

In other cases, cash flow might be slowing adoption rates.

“Lots of times, farmers are just happy with the way things are going, and they don’t really feel like they have the time or the labour to change the way they’re doing things,” she said.

“There’s room for improvement in probably every operation, but we also start to reach a point where there are diminishing rates of return. The extra cost in terms of labour and cash outlay in order to get a slight improvement may not pay off.”

But sometimes, the investment can pay off — and those are the areas where producers should be focusing their time and money.

“There are some things that are necessary expenses,” said Larson. “You shouldn’t cut corners on herd health, pastures, or herd sires.”

Feed testing is another good example.

“Depending on the lab you use, it’s probably going to cost $25 to $50 to get your feed tested — but your feed is your biggest expense,” said Larson. “If you know the quality of it, you can make a proper low-cost ration, and that way, you’re not overfeeding or underfeeding.”

Another is preg checking.

“It’s probably going to cost $6, but the cost of taking an open cow through the winter and not getting a calf the next year is $400 in overwintering alone.”

Ultimately, these recommended practices are there to make sure producers are being as productive and as profitable as possible in an increasingly competitive environment.

“It’s a low-margin business, so we want to make sure that producers are aware of the recommended practices and that they have the numbers in front of them to make an informed decision as to whether or not it’s going to work for their operation,” said Larson.

“That’s your best shot at generating a profit.”

And that missed opportunity is ultimately the risk of not adopting these beneficial practices, said Grant.

“In many ways, cow-calf production is very simple. You take them out to grass, let them get fat, and bring them home in the fall,” said Grant.

“As a result, we often think about the grain sector as the one with the new fancy gadgets. But there are innovations on the cow-calf side too, and these are areas of opportunity for the sector.”

For more information, go to www.beefresearch.ca (click on Resources, then Reports and then Adoption Rates of Recommended Practices).

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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