Boosting profits: Running the numbers while running the herd

Tracking data on your ranch makes for better decisions and more money in your jeans

Tyler and Dorelle Fulton, shown with children Mae and Evan, have embraced record-keeping as a way to boost productivity and profitability on their farm near Birtle, Man.
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Measuring and tracking your cattle can make a big difference — an extra 60 pounds per weaned calf.

Kathy Larson. photo: Supplied

“The way you manage your herd all plays into what you have for pounds to market at the end of your calf crop when you’re weaning off your calves,” economist Kathy Larson said during a recent Beef Cattle Research Council webinar.

“There’s research out there that says that producers who focus on their unit cost of production are consistently more profitable.”

Given their low margins, that’s not something cow-calf producers can ignore, added Larson, a research associate at the University of Saskatchewan. They need to look at unit cost of production, which includes break-even on calves and cost per pound of weaned calves, she said.

“It’s probably a better approach,” she said. “You take your total cow cost and divide it by total pounds of calf weaned. That’s all the pounds you have for market.”

Doing this allows a producer to zero in on what really matters.

“What influences your pounds of calf weaned?” asked Larson, adding those factors can include conception rate, death loss, and calving distribution.

A survey of producers involved in the disease surveillance network found those who had more detailed records and also used benchmarking were getting an average of additional 60 pounds of calf weaned.

“It does pay off,” said Larson, adding good records have many uses.

Some use them for making informed decisions about which females to cull, which bulls to pair with which females, and which heifers to retain.

“You might use your records if you’re having a bit of an issue with herd health. You want to be able to troubleshoot and see if this is an off year, or a pattern that needs veterinary help.”

Good production and financial records are not only helpful for budgeting and figuring out the cost of production, but for tracking improvements in performance.

“You should be setting goals for yourself, and to evaluate your progression towards those goals, you’re going to need records of some sort,” said Larson.

Taking it to the pastures

Records have long been important on the ranch of Tyler Fulton and weighing calves at birth and weaning has provided “a plethora of data” for pinpointing production issues.

But the Manitoba cow-calf producer wanted more and now uses an online spreadsheet that allows him to pull out specific data into charts and graphs, and access and update data from his phone or computer.

“What’s motivated us to move towards an electronic base system is the fact that we’ve grown our herd by roughly 150 cows over the last three to four years,” said Fulton, who now runs 650 head that are VBP+ and European Union certified (which also require some detailed record-keeping).

“The calving period is a pretty busy time and I think what a lot of people do is they start not recording some of that information,” said Fulton. “And for me, that wasn’t a really palatable option.”

Being able to update records on his phone (which are later synced to his computer over his home Wi-Fi) is key, he said, citing an outbreak of scours last spring (when he had to treat about 30 calves) as an example.

“If I was out checking animals, and I needed to treat a particular calf, then I would be able to go on my phone, record who the calf was, and it automatically populated the herd that it was in,” he said.

Making use of data

Collecting records and analyzing them takes time, said Larson.

A year-over-year analysis is a very productive exercise, she said, adding she knows producers who look over their numbers a couple of times a year, and compare them to benchmarks.

There’s a list of benchmarks in the Resources section at the Beef Cattle Research Council website.

Larson also recommends tracking indicators, including the GOLD indicators.

G stands for growth and includes wean weight, total pounds of calf weaned, wean weight per female exposed and weight per day of age.

“Those are all different metrics that you can figure out to do with the wean weight of your calves,” she said.

O stands for opens. According to data collected in Western Canada, a producer should aim for a seven per cent open rate on cows, and 10 per cent open rate on heifers.

L stands for calving season length (which should be between 60 to 80 days), while D stands for death loss on calves (which should be under four per cent).

She cautioned her audience that there are a lot of different terms for the same indicators, so it’s important to make sure you know what you are calculating.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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