Eric Mousel May 2019

Eric Mousel, University of Minnesota Extension cow/calf management educator, University of Minnesota-Grand Rapids.

It’s not the glitz or glamour that make a livestock operation profitable day in and day out. It’s the hard work, taking care of the herd and their feed, and marketing correctly by understanding the needs of your customers.

In Minnesota, says Eric Mousel, University of Minnesota Extension cow/calf management educator, producers have had great success getting cows bred and calved. The pounds weaned per cow exposed, though, is lower in Minnesota than in the neighboring states of North Dakota and South Dakota.

Mousel spoke on the subject at the 2020 University of Minnesota Cow/Calf Days.

“We consistently only wean 85 percent of our calves in Minnesota, and in the Dakotas it’s probably more consistently 93-95 percent weaned,” he said. “So Minnesota’s pounds of calves weaned per cow exposed is lower than other areas that actually wean lighter calves.”

There are many reasons this could happen, Mousel said. Scours are a big problem – and not just from the loss of calves that die, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the calves that live.

In some herds, scours may affect from 0-50 percent of calves. If less than 10 percent died, the 90 percent that survived may arrive at weaning time 50-75 pounds lighter than those that never had scours, Mousel said.

“We can talk about the tools we have available for scours and those types of things, but I think they have a lot better chance of being more effective for us after some of the systemic issues have been addressed,” he said. “That looks a little bit different for everybody.”

Minnesota’s humidity is an issue for cattle, Mousel said, and the Land of 10,000 Lakes is more humid than any place in cow country that he’s ever lived.

Whether it’s more bedding, investing in air flow, adjusting calving systems, moving calving dates or doing different things with nutrition – these are things that Mousel says can improve weaning weights.

According to University of Minnesota Farm Business Management numbers, the average weaning weight in Minnesota is 530 pounds per cow exposed. It costs about $750 to take care of a cow for a year, so that means to breakeven, an operator needs to wean and market a 525-pound calf for each cow exposed.

“I assume most of us don’t want to just breakeven,” he said.

He listed several ways to increase the profitability per cow exposed:

Increase the weaning percentage per cow exposed

More important than reducing feed costs to the cow, increasing the weaning percentage is an astronomical multiplier for efficiency. Even a 3 percent increase in percent of calves weaned per exposed cow will make more of a difference in the cow herd than reducing feed costs per cow by $30 per year, he said.

Shorten up the calving season

Tightening up the calving season improves the uniformity of calves. Uniformity makes for more desirable calves at the sale barn.

Not everybody is going to reach a goal of a 45-day calving window, but a 90-120-day calving season is common for some herds. The tail-end calves at weaning will be 100-200 pounds lighter than the front end, Mousel reminded.

“The primary benefit for you is that calves on the light end are going to be much more uniform/saleable in the marketplace,” he said.

He added that tightening up the calving season can take many years.

Identify poor producers

In order to improve pounds of weaned calf/cow exposed, livestock operations need to identify any cow that produces a nice calf but doesn’t take care of it. Culling out these cows can improve whole herd efficiency.

“We’re weaning only slightly heavier calves than we did 20 years ago,” Mousel remarked. “We’ve got a lot of things we have to do before we can really capitalize on all the genetics that we’ve improved in these cattle. We need to be able to find these cows that aren’t getting their job done.”

In a breakeven or non-profitable herd, he suggests culling the bottom 10-15 percent of cows annually, in addition to cows that are open, or those with bad udders or feet.

Marketing opportunities

Mousel encourages producers to use a critical eye when studying their own cattle.

What does a feedlot want when they purchase calves at the sale barn? First and foremost, they want to produce good finishing cattle, and to do that, they need cattle that are uniform in frame size and weight. Bull calves need castration and all calves need vaccinations and documentation of veterinary practices.

Weaning calves at least 30 days before taking them to the sales barn adds to the producer and the buyer.

“Hang on to these calves after you’ve weaned them for 30, 60, or maybe even 90 days. In some situations, you’ll open up a whole new world of opportunities for marketing,” he said. “The investment is generally pretty small to put in a little background facility.”

For outfits that raise cattle that are not black-hided, let the sales barn know as soon as possible when the calves are coming to town. That gives buyers the opportunity to put together a truckload of “red” calves. If buyers see 12-20 red calves and can’t fill a truck, they may discount prices to the operator to pay for trucking.

He also encourages producers to be at the sales barn when their cattle are being sold. Building a reputation as someone who does a great job raising cattle can help in the future.

“If you think those buyers don’t know who you are, you’re kidding yourself,” he said. “They know how well your cattle did the last time they bought them. So always be there to develop that reputation and represent your cattle.”

Mousel reminds producers to keep in mind the seasonality of the market. If possible to market cattle outside the normal run of the calf crop, that’s all the better.

Finally, he pointed out that cull cows have important value. Feeding a cull cow to a moderate body condition score and selling at the right time of the year can add $200 to her value.

“There are a lot of opportunities for cow/calf people to improve some of their efficiencies,” Mousel concluded.