Longevity and Fertility are Profit Drivers for Cattle Operations

by Clifford Mitchell

Reblogged from Cattle Today

DSC_0094_6x4_72Producers in the 21st century beef industry come better prepared than ever before. Continued education programs and an abundance of online resources help cattlemen stay well informed. Record keeping practices have improved and cattlemen have a good handle on the costs associated with their operation.

Tightening margins have forced producers to further evaluate the management plan, running through many different scenarios to find the best production model. For some this was a real eye-opener, for others it reinforced the approach they were taking to manage the herd for a profit. A genetic base complete with a bundle of traits also played a key role in the success of the operation. Many cattlemen have argued with neighbors and colleagues until they were blue in the face over their point of view; however, most will agree longevity built into the female is a definite advantage for most outfits.

“Every year I can keep a cow it cuts my costs $1,500. Because that’s what it costs to get a female into production,” says James Henderson, Bradley 3 Ranch, LTD, Memphis, Texas.

Photo by Penny Bowie

Photo by Penny Bowie

“Operations have to be profit driven. Fertility is a good trait to have and will lead to a long life on many ranches, but females have to be productive. Make sure cows are able to live in your environment, breed back and do it profitably year after year,” says Dr. Robert Wells, Livestock Consultant, Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Oklahoma.

“Longevity is one of the reasons we have Brangus females. A lot of times you wouldn’t know that old cow, is not a six or seven year old, because she’s still milking well and raising a good calf,” says Adam Whitesell, Lockwood, Missouri. This operation maintains 600 to 650 Brangus females and retains ownership of the calf crop most years at Decatur County Feedyard in Oberlin, Kansas.

Cattlemen have been programmed into two schools of thought; either buy or raise the replacements that the operation needs. Costs are associated with each method; another big debate among cattlemen looking for the most profitable answers.

“I know it costs us something to get that heifer into production. I have never put a pencil to actual costs. When it’s time, we select our replacements they go to grass and the cull heifers go to the feedyard,” Whitesell says. “I would think a five-year-old after producing three calves would have paid for herself in our program.”

“The cost of a replacement will vary from one operation to the next depending on if heifers are home-raised or bought. The first thing producers need to do is maximize the salvage value of that cull cow,” Wells says. “Quality replacements, from a known source and bred to good calving ease bulls are costing any where from $1,000 to $1,200 in our current market. Most females, depending on the value of the calf she is producing, should pay for themselves by the time they are four or five years old.”


“Just to break even in our operation a cow has to be six and produced four calves,” Henderson says. “According to my calculations, it costs me $1,500 every time I replace a cow. This includes feed, facilities, pasture, semen and labor. None of these things come without a cost.”

Care and handling of these replacements will bring genetics to the forefront when done right. Management could help these females lead long productive lives just by making the right decisions as they are introduced to the next stage in the production cycle.

“One of the things we’re trying to do to get these females to 90 to 95% of their mature weight when they calve as two year olds. If these females don’t have to grow and lactate at the same time we get a better breed up percentage,” Henderson says. “It takes a lot of energy for heifers to grow and lactate and that’s why some operations see low conception rates in first calf heifers.”

“It’s extremely important to get females into production at 24 months of age. Starting with a good tight calving interval will help these cows become productive employees and that’s how you should treat them,” Wells says. “Getting that first calf with no problems is really important. You are setting up a future employee for a successful career. As a heifer, she needs to be mated to the right calving ease bull and managed correctly. Calving problems could jeopardize her future because some heifers, experiencing dystocia won’t breed back.”

Longevity and fertility are two traits that are often tied together with productive members of the cow herd. High turnover rates prove costly to most operations. Firms that can retain productive females, year after year, will have an advantage over those who fail to retain this valuable asset. A defined calving season will also help supply selection pressure needed to identify productive cows.


“When operations replace cows at a young age and have a high turnover rate it’s extremely costly. There are costs in training any new employee and this in affect is what the rancher is doing,” Wells says. “Every time you wean calves you should evaluate the cow herd. Find out if that cow is bred. See if she brought a calf to the weaning pen. Replace your non-productive employees. Don’t make excuses for them unless there was a management problem. Lifetime productivity is 100 percent tied to fertility, because the first thing she has to do is have a calf every year to stay in the breeding program.”

“Maintaining a defined calving season helps us eliminate those open females. Every cow I have shipped for being open, I have shipped a relative at some point in time,” Henderson says. “It costs me $1,500 to replace a female, if she leaves before she’s six I have to figure in whatever she owed me to break even. Turning over young females is costly. Some seedstock operations turn over the cow herd every five years, we have guidelines in place where only our older productive cows are donor candidates.”

“Some of our Brangus females may be a little slow to mature, but once you get them bred and in the herd, it’s like clock work their ability to breed and produce every year,” Whitesell says. “Even in our large operation you notice the cows that keep doing it every year and it’s amazing to see their daughters when they get into production.”

Evaluation begins with a producer studying his lesson. Looking over those records to help identify which cows are getting older. Some operations have a cut and dried policy of when they’re going to cull females, like a birth date and when they reach a certain age they are gone. Other outfits work and watch the cows and make a decision based on her performance.

“A lot of people subscribe to a date on a calendar or age as to when it’s time to cull the cow. Some look to see if she’s open or when she starts to fail because of structure or other ailments. I think there is a hybrid decision making process in there somewhere that combines both theories,” Wells says. “When cows reach ten years old you need to evaluate them pretty closely. Is she bringing a big healthy calf to the weaning pen or is she having a hard time earning her keep? Producers can lose a great deal of salvage value keeping a cow one year too long.”

“We look for problems year round to try and identify cows that we need to remove form the herd. We can still maximize our salvage value a lot of times with a 10 or 12 year old cow and this goes a long way to help cover her replacement costs,” Whitesell says. “We really watch the older cows when they get a calf on the ground if they are unable to maintain there condition then she’s a cull candidate. If she can maintain her condition and supply that calf with milk, I’ll keep her. Most of the time we’re culling 12 and 13 year old cows pretty heavily in our operation.”

“There are two components to longevity. If their teeth wear out they are probably not going to maintain body condition. Her overall ability to maintain condition, there comes a point in every cow’s life when she can’t maintain with a calf on her,” Henderson says. “We sell our culls as 11-year-old bred cows and still manage to get a pretty good price for them. If we had a little better country we could keep them another year or two and still get good value for our culls.”

Management is always the X-factor for every operation. Some outfits have access to more resources than others allowing for different management protocols. Special care is taken with potential replacements in most cases. Some producers are taking better care of the older cows.

“I have a pasture I put all my nine- and 10-year-old cows in. It’s a little closer and a little better pasture. I don’t drive them to the other side of the ranch,” Henderson says. “I think this is good management. It doesn’t cost that much to maintain those older cows and they are paying a good portion of the bills.”


“Most producers don’t have the capability to group cows based on age. It is really hard for most operations to do this,” Wells says. “If you have the ability to sort those older cows, make sure the costs of maintaining that older cow allow for her to still be a productive employee. A lot of times the extra costs will limit this as a management tool.”

Certain breeds of cattle are known for their ability to lead long productive lives. The Brahman influence was introduced for a variety of things; however, there is a reason these females and their American cross counterparts thrive at being productive employees for the operations they work for.

“There is a heterosis affect when we cross bos indicus and bos taurus cattle and it’s a wonderful thing. These females come with heat and insect tolerance, the ability to maintain body condition while covering a lot of country and longevity is really a strong point,” Henderson says. “It is not uncommon to hear of Brahman influenced females that are16 or 17 year old cows still raising calves. How much money have those females made you over the years? Once she pays for herself, whatever her calf is bringing above the cow’s maintenance cost is net profit. The returns will be a little different for each operation.”

red pair_72

“The bos indicus influenced females will typically bring longevity to the table. These females have fertility built in and they are going to bring us a calf every year,” Wells says. “The udders won’t break down and they have the ability to get out and range for their own food. These females will typically have long productive lives and maintain themselves at an older age without becoming a special care case for the operator.”

“Longevity with the Brangus cattle is just icing on the cake. These females come with a lot of other traits that I like,” Whiesell says. “It is not uncommon for us to have 14 year old females that have produced us 12 calves. As long as they are good mommas and have good udders, we’ll keep them another year.”

The advantages of built in longevity within the herd have somewhat of a trickle-down affect on financial statements. More importantly cow herds that excel in longevity should be more profitable and help operators make better decisions in the replacement pen.

“Bottom line in my operation, the more years I can keep a cow, the more selective I can be picking replacements,” Whitesell says. “Certain years, because we didn’t have to replace as many cows as we thought, we can sell the replacements that we don’t need and add a little cash flow to the operation. I don’t have any problems selling these Brangus females and they bring a premium.”

“The longer I can keep females in the herd the more selection I can do on our replacements,” Henderson says. “We’re really starting to see longevity built in the herd because we have been selecting for it. It is really costly to replace two and three year old cows. By applying more selection pressure to that group of replacements, you should see fewer females fall out of the program at a young age.”

Obviously, different operations will identify profit drivers and translate this into the selection process. This bundle of traits will be different for most operations looking to carve a profit. Working to eliminate the non-productive members of the cow herd could come with a huge operating cost in the beginning.

Building fertility and longevity with genetics known for these traits could pay dividends well into the future. Producers must remember there is a fine line for when that older cow is paying the bills or costing you money. Streamlining management with genetic selection should help producers maintain a healthy bottom line and productive cow herd.

“As long as a cow can maintain herself in your environment it is cheaper to keep her than replace her,” Henderson says. “Fertility and longevity tend to go hand-in-hand. There are few traits you can build into the cow herd that will pay you as much as fertility and longevity. Having cows that can maintain long productive lives are key to the overall success of the operation.”

“As cows get older we need to pay close attention to teeth, udders and body condition. Brahman influenced females are known for their longevity and ability to remain productive for a long time,” Wells says. “Genetic selection and taking advantage of this crossbred cow will go a long way to limiting some issues down the road. Maintain productive employees and fire the non-producers.”

“I see the Brangus affect on longevity every day. That’s one of the reason we have had Brangus females for the last 20 years. These females wean a big calf and are problem free for many years,” Whitesell says. “Fertility and longevity are important traits for any cow herd. Brangus females have sure worked well in our operation.”

For more information about Brangus, visit GoBrangus.com or contact the International Brangus Breeders Association (IBBA) office at 210-696-8231 or email info@int-brangus.org.


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