Reproductive technologies offer numerous benefits for commercial cow/calf operations
“We’re where the rubber meets the road,” Barb Downey of Downey Ranch says, noting she and her husband run a cow/calf operation near Wamego, Kan.
Their spring calving operation runs 550 females, of which about 150 are registered.
“We run a range-type program,” she continues. “Our cows are out year-round grazing dormant range, stock-piled forages and improved forages.”
The family works diligently to run a low-input herd, utilizing artificial insemination (AI) and year-round on-range grazing.
Downey notes reproductive technologies are important to their operation.
“We use AI pretty extensively now,” she says. “We have also used more and more estrus synchronization, and everything we breed is synchronized now.”
Heifers are synchronized using an MGA program. They are heat-detected and cleaned up using timed AI. Cows are bred using exclusively timed AI.
“We have also used sexed semen, particularly during the expansion phase,” Downey continues. “We also use ultrasound.”
Embryo transfer is utilized only in their seedstock herd, and Downey adds, “We also do some fun things with management that I say help our technology go further and do better for us.”
From the beginning
For Downey Ranch, synchronizing heifers was the “low-hanging fruit,” says Downey. “It was easy to do from the beginning.”
Cows were AI’ed on natural heats for many years, but as the operation expanded, the process became infeasible.
“As we got bigger, we just couldn’t do it. We started syncing some of our mature cows in the late 2000s,” she explains. “Starting in 2011, we started syncing everything. The AI date is 45 days or greater post-partum.”
In 2017, May 11 was the breeding date for Downey Ranch. Their first calf heifers were AI’ed on May 15.
“We keep our first-calf heifers separate to make sure they’re getting proper attention,” she says.
Downey adds, “We also AI commercial and registered cattle separately to keep manageable size groups.”
The registered cattle were AI’ed May 22 and finished with their commercial and recipient cows on May 26. Embryo transfer occurred on June 2.
“May is chaos at the ranch,” she says. “Why do we spend all this time and put ourselves through hell in May? The benefits of AI and synchronization tested by researchers are real, obvious and proven.”
Downey adds proven conception rate semen is huge.
“Fertility is everything to our bottom line. If we can tick that up a little bit more and use a good settler, it makes a huge difference.”
If synchronized cows are in heat on day one coupled with high conception rate semen, the commercial F1 base herd remains intact.
“Then we can deliberately plan our matings. If I’ve got a reproductively sound cow, there is no way I am going to cull her because her calf hung up a select carcass,” Downey says. “I’ll take a calf every time, but I can maybe dink with the EPD program we use.”
“Then, at that point in time, we’ve already naturally selected for the females – both F1 and straight bred – that are most fertile in the system. It’s a nice way to do that and cut the bull battery about in half, which is not inconsequential.”
Synchronizing independent of AI has also been hugely important, says Downey.
“Calves born in the first 25 days of our calving season have increased since we’ve been synchronizing all the calves and not just some of them,” she says.
Since implementing a synchronization program in 2011 for the vast majority of their cowherd, Downey Ranch has been able to increase the percentage of cow calving in the first 25 days of the calving season. Today, 77.8 percent of the herd calves in the first 25 days, which is an increase in 12 percent over initial values.
“When we moved to synchronizing all our cows, the days to have a calf also decreased,” she says.
At the same time, they eliminate labor from heat detecting cows, and the post-partum time for the cow is increased. If she calves on day one of the calving season, their cows have 82 days before breeding, increasing their chance of early breeding.
Downey Ranch sells bred heifers annually in their sale, and they have developed a strong market for bred heifers.
“We purchase sexed semen, and we sexed a Hereford bull that we really like the F1 baldy females from,” she explains.
Starting in 2011, they began to watch the market and sold increased numbers of females from 2013 to 2015, averaging $3,300 on the heifers.
Downey adds, “We were so lucky. At the same time, our fat cattle were $1,875.”
“Last year we got a little more realistic at $2,000 per bred heifer,” she continues. “When we look at all of our costs, heifers paid us $684 more than the steer calves. For us, the sexed semen was definitely worth it.”
Downey also utilizes a portable ultrasound machine on the ranch.
Prior to 2014, she notes they hired someone to ultrasound our heifers for $1,000.
“In 2014, we made a sizable investment and purchased a unit for $4,800,” she comments. “In five years, I paid my share of the ultrasound just by not having someone come in and do it for me.”
However, Downey adds the bigger financial gain has come in strategic marketing.
“Ever fall, open cow prices go down the drain,” she says. “Open cows are a sizable income option for any commercial ranch. If I can sell them when they are worth more – not in the fall – and when their body condition is better, we can make money.”
“We’re able to also sort our heifers with the ultrasound machine, keeping our first-service AI heifers and marketing the rest,” Downey adds. “If we’re just preg checking and not aging the calves, it’s fast, too, with no wear and tear on my hand.”
On a good day, Downey says she could only check about 100 heifers before her hand was tired. Now, they are able to preg check at 30 days.
“We can still keep our 60-day calving window intact, too,” she adds.
Downey adds,“All of these things have a positive effect that is a little bit better every year.”
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.