Five-year shift to a controlled breeding program

Nov 18, 2011
by WLJ

No doubt the idea of going from a year-round breeding/ calving season to one only 90 days long is intimidating.

There’s the big ouch of selling all your cows that don’t breed in the specified time. Then there’s the need to build a sturdy bull pen. Plus, it takes a bit of figuring to decide when is the best time to breed and calve. The fact that it’s so overwhelming is probably the reason more folks don’t do it. But rather than going cold turkey, how about easing into it with a five-year plan?

That’s what University of Georgia (UGA) Extension beef specialist Lawton Stewart recommends. He starts by asking producers to think about the best time to market calves, then work backwards.

“That’s the ultimate goal: to sell when calf prices are at an optimum and to produce a uniform group to sell in truckload lots or group sales,” says Stewart. “One of the ways to do that is have a group of calves that weighs about the same.”

Stewart’s plan uses major holidays as markers to make the move. Those holidays, plus or minus a day or two, are set points for when to put bulls in with cows, when to take them out, and when calves will hit the ground. Each year, the number of days bulls are in with cows is shortened, until the season is cut to 90 days.

SEASON ONE. If your ultimate goal is to have a late winter/early-spring calving season, start the first year by taking your bulls out on July 4. Pregnancy check on Labor Day and cull open cows. “That’s the hardest part for any producer,” Stewart warns. “But if you keep her, you have to carry her for a whole year.” The bulls go back in at Christmas.

SEASON TWO. Stick with July 4 as the time to take bulls out and Labor Day as the time for preg checking. You’ll probably start to have calves appear in October. Bulls are back in the herd at Christmas.

SEASON THREE. Wait until Valentine’s Day to put bulls in with cows. As usual, take them out on July 4 and preg check by Labor Day. Cull open cows. Since you’re starting to tighten up your breeding season, calves probably won’t start hitting the ground until December.

SEASON FOUR. Put your bulls in April 1. Pull them July 4, preg check Labor Day, and cull open cows. Now calves should be appearing in January.

SEASON FIVE. Now it’s just a matter of repeating what you did during the fourth season. Once again, put the bulls out April 1, pull them July 4, preg check Labor Day and cull. Look forward to calves the following January through March.

Although Jerry and Judy Timmons didn’t have a yearround breeding and calving season, they did have one that stretched out for six months. They figured that was about 90 days too long. The Leary, GA, producers took the plunge and shortened their 200-cow commercial herd breeding season.

As a result of the switch, the two have seen several advantages. First, there is greater uniformity, which helps at marketing time.

“There can be a 200-pound difference in calves that are only 90 days apart,” says Jerry. Since they are working toward selling in feedlotbound truckload lots, the less weight difference the better."

The Timmonses work toward even more uniform calves by AI breeding to the same sire then cleaning up with sons of the AI sire. They¬† synchronize and AI breed all heifers and any cows that are 50 days postpartum or more, then turn in the bulls after one AI service. “It would be hard to AI without a controlled breeding season,” says Jerry.

They plan to stay with AI breeding. In the four years since they have been using synchronization and AI, the Timmonses’ weaning weights have increased from 675 pounds to 822 pounds.

Another plus with a shorter breeding season is improved feed efficiency. “If you look at a brood cow, her nutritional requirements change tremendously through the year,” says Stewart.

In the Timmonses’ herd, they supplement cows and heifers with corn silage and by grazing winter annuals. Neither is cheap. “You want to supplement the ones that have calved, not the dry cows,” says Jerry.

Managing a herd that’s on the same breeding schedule also helps with things as simple as vaccination timing. Trying to vaccinate against scours or BVD before cows calve can be tricky if they are on a year-round calving season. When do you put those cows in the chute?

A controlled breeding season has allowed Jerry to change his vaccination program, converting the cow herd to Modified Live Vaccines (MLV). Per label instructions, the first two years, MLV has to be given to open cows due to the risk of causing abortions in pregnant cows. “Now we can give the shot before we AI them,” he reports.

This also makes for easier calving checks. “We check cows twice a day during calving, and our heifers three or four times,” Jerry reports.

While the pros of a controlled breeding season far outweigh the cons, Jerry says there are a couple of drawbacks to a shortened season. There were the 30 open cows he culled the first year.

Since he AI breeds for one service, he hasn’t had to buy more bulls.

Still, he’s not planning on going back to a six-month breeding and calving season anytime soon.

For more details, UGA has a controlled breeding season calculator that is interactive, allowing producers to plug in their desired weaning dates at www.ces. cmpdec.htm. —DTN