The Beef Cattle Research Council recently posted two in-depth articles on record-keeping and benchmarking. The articles look at the benefits, what records to keep, resources, and how good records can boost profitability. But they also note a recent survey found that while almost all producers keep some sort of records (such as birthdates, culling/death loss records; and health info), fewer than half recorded birth weights, weaning weights, and other production data. The full versions of both articles can be found at beefresearch.ca. Here are comments on record-keeping from three producers profiled in the articles.
Data collected on Karmen McNabb’s Excel spreadsheets gives their southwest Saskatchewan farm a pretty good handle on overall herd performance, pointing out the better and poorer performers in their Red Angus/Beefbooster-cross commercial beef herd, as well as help in grouping backgrounded calves for market. The 20-plus years of records can also be used for tracking any trends in production — pointing toward any changes needed in production and management practices.
“To be honest, I don’t know if the longer-term information has ever indicated a need for any dramatic changes,” says McNabb. “It allows us to do some benchmarking with industry averages. There’s always room for improvement.”
The information tells them if they are in the ballpark with their practices.
“I suppose our weaning weights could be a little higher, but then we calve later in April and May, so our weaning weights will be lower than ranches where they calve earlier. We are also working to reduce cow size and get away from those 1,700-pound cows, and that will influence calf birth weights too.”
McNabb says, half jokingly since she does most of the tagging at calving, that she’s not interested in switching from late-spring calving to a February calving season just to have higher weaning weights.
Karmen and husband Jason are the third generation on the farm and also crop about 1,000 acres of grain. She began keeping herd records in Excel in about 1996, tracking animal identification numbers, calving dates, estimated birth weights, all medical treatments and protocols, and calf weaning weights. She’s also recording “poor performance indicators” such as calving difficulty, temperament, and physical issues.
Most years, all heifers and steers go into their on-farm backgrounding program.
“I use the data from the spreadsheet to calculate a normalized 200-day weaning weight on our calves,” she says.
A normalized weight is adjusted for calving dates and steers versus heifers. Cows that produced calves with the lowest performance are identified for culling.
Weaning weights of calves are used to sort them into the backgrounding program for the winter. Everything is weighed and sorted again, usually in mid-January. Heavier calves might be put on a higher ration to get them to market weight sooner, while lighter ones might be put on a lower ration, and then put out to grass in spring depending on available feed and grass.
McNabb also monitored herd reproductive performance over a few years after they switched to bale and swath grazing in winter. She found no significant difference in herd conception rates, which told her cattle still maintained a good plane of nutrition even on swath and bale grazing.
Maintaining proper records is essential as they participate in major industry quality assurance and marketing programs such as BIXS, McDonald’s Canada Verified Sustainable Beef Pilot Project and Verified Beef Production Plus (VBP+).
Maintaining the records takes a bit of time and is usually done first thing in the morning over coffee.
“I don’t mind it because I am interested in it,” she says.
Herd selection and providing an edge into premium marketing programs are two of the key benefits Tyler Fulton derives from a comprehensive herd record-keeping system on his southwest Manitoba farm.
Records maintained on customized Excel program spreadsheets help him select cattle for optimum performance while the collective value of the record-keeping system helps him access premium beef markets.
“It is sort of a split between the two,” says Fulton, who along with family members runs a 550-head Beefbooster herd just east of the Saskatchewan border. “One of the main drivers of keeping proper records is to help us make informed decisions about culling and selecting animals for replacement. Another main driver is to provide buyers with the confidence in how our cattle are raised so we can access higher-value hormone- and antibiotic-free markets.”
Fulton says he is proud of the record-keeping system they’ve developed, although one of the downsides is a cumbersome information transfer from the field to the computer. Particularly at those peak times of the year — calving and weaning — when he is collecting lots of information, he makes notes in a calving book and later inputs into the spreadsheet.
“Excel isn’t user friendly on a smartphone so I am limited as to what I can input directly,” he says. “So at those busy times I write the information down and transfer it to the computer every night to keep records up to date.”
While he has looked at some of the commercially available record-keeping systems, he is waiting for an easy-to-use phone app that will allow him to input information directly to software.
The effort of maintaining records is worth it, he says. Fulton collects information on any calving difficulty and temperament, and also scores each animal at the time with an assessment of teats, udder, and feet condition. That calving-time assessment counts 50 to 70 per cent toward her culling score. He also records information such as date of birth, sex, polled or horned, and birth weight.
The next large volume of herd information is collected at weaning. All fall calves are weighed and sorted by weight and age into different groups for backgrounding. Some heifers will be kept for replacements in the Fulton herd, some may be selected to be sold as replacement heifers and the rest will continue into the beef market.
The final major information collecting point is in February and March when backgrounded animals are again sorted and weighed for marketing at about 750 pounds. Steers and heifers are sorted either to be shipped, held on feed for a while longer, or perhaps held to be put out later on grass.
Calf weights from birth to weaning and again from weaning to February/March are recorded and later analyzed for overall rates of gain.
“The primary figure we look at is the rate of gain from birth to weaning,” says Fulton. “We are looking at the gain of pounds of beef per animal up to weaning.”
That figure reflects on the performance of the breeding program. Females that consistently produce high-performing calves and don’t have any serious negative ratings at calving stay in the herd. Poorer performers are culled.
The spreadsheet, which can also accommodate some key beef enterprise input costs, can generate aggregate cost-of-production figures for the herd.
Fulton says all the detailed production information contained in the spreadsheet along with participation in programs such as VBP+ are key to marketing.
“We are targeting the highest-grossing price for calves by supplying specialty markets,” he says. “Those records that help demonstrate our production practices provide buyers with confidence that we raise hormone- and antibiotic-free cattle. It provides access to premium price programs.”
Tom Teichroeb says all the effort he invests in keeping proper production records for his south-central Manitoba beef herd and being involved with industry programs such as Verified Beef Production Plus, pays a very important dividend — it allows him to stay in business, keep doing what he’s doing.
But tracking profitability is not the only reason.
“When people ask me what we get out of keeping records and participating in other programs it is a very simple answer,” he says. “We continue to have a licence to operate. I believe today, for a number of reasons, it is so very important to have your production information documented and to be able to demonstrate we are doing the best job possible. It is important to provide that transparency. My records on how we produce cattle, and on the farming operation itself, are open to anyone who wants to have a look. I am proud of what I am doing here and glad to show everyone that we are doing a good job.”
Teichroeb, who runs a commercial Black Angus/Simmental-cross herd, has been maintaining thorough production records on a custom-built Excel program spreadsheet for a number of years. It starts with very complete cattle identification information for cows, calves and bulls. He records not only the CCIA ID number, but also when each animal is tagged with a numbered steel ear tag, as well as a dangle tag. And everything is also branded.
“Again I believe for our own benefit but for the industry as well it is important to have a very solid tracking and traceability system in place,” he says. “We know for certain who every animal is on our farm.”
Seasonal data collected includes individual calving dates, sex, and estimated birth weights (backed by historical records of actual calf weights).
The reports also show cow herd performance at calving for the moderate-size (1,300- to 1,350-pound) animals. Calving ease along with any physical traits for each female is noted. As part of the Verified Beef Production Plus requirements they also maintain very detailed medical records — all treatments, withdrawal dates, and product expiry dates are recorded.
All calves are weighed at weaning before going into a backgrounding program. The farm scale is equipped with technology that collects ear tag identification numbers, and weights of each animal, which is easily transferred and uploaded to the office computer.
“As we collect all this information our goal is to maintain and show complete tracking and traceability of our cattle and also to demonstrate an openness to all buyers and markets that this is what we have and this is how it was produced,” says Teichroeb.
The seasonal performance information for each animal is analyzed to make management decisions on culling the herd.
“If we have two calves born on April 20, for example, and one weans 650 pounds and the other is 150 pounds lighter, there better be a darn good reason or otherwise the mother of that calf is gone. So we can use the data we have collected, plus historical information for each animal in the herd, to sort the top-performing animals. While the information has other benefits we do have to maintain productivity and profitability.”
Teichroeb says that accurate animal identification records as well as performance data may now have the potential to add value for fats marketed through the BIXS network. This will hold true as long as everyone in the chain, starting with the primary producer, feedlot and including the packer, has VBP+ status. Ultimately, all the records and shared information provided by BIXS will potentially qualify the primary producer for a premium for those VBP+ certified animals.
“Maintaining proper and thorough production records benefits not only the individual producer but the industry as a whole,” says Teichroeb. “Once you get your main database established, maintaining records is not a big job. We add updated information as it comes along but it only takes a few minutes at a time. I don’t consider it much extra work for what we get in return.”