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Profitable production: Reproduction is most important factor for profitable beef production

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Denver, Colo. – The 2023 Commercial Cattlemen’s Symposium was held on Sept 13-15 in conjunction with the 70th National Red Angus Convention.

Various speakers presented at the three-day event, including Dr. Rick Funston, professor and beef reproductive physiologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), who discussed increasing production efficiency. 

Funston received his bachelor’s degree from North Dakota State University, master’s degree from Montana State University, his doctorate from the University of Wyoming and completed a post-doctorate at Colorado State University in reproduction and biotechnology.

During the symposium, Funston discussed how reproduction is the most economically important trait in cow/calf production and provided the attendees with practical and scientific facts on reproductive management.

“Producers should think about developing heifers, rather than selling them at weaning and taking a significant discount, as there is potential of making a larger profit by growing out heifers,” he said.

Tools to utilize

As a previous member of the Beef Reproduction Task Force (BRTF), Funston explained the role of the multi-disciplinary group, formed by research and Extension faculty members from universities across the U.S., is to focus on beef cattle reproduction, management and reproductive technologies.

“There are a lot of young people involved now, and we are setting standards, but some reproduction protocols need to be revised,” Funston stated. “The BRTF website is the best in the world. It has a series of tools to help producers make decisions and guide them through the process of implementing new reproductive technologies.”

Funston continued, “Producers need to have a great synchronization calendar, and BRTF offers a simple Excel spreadsheet to assist producers in establishing a program calendar.”

The BRTF website also offers an AI “cowculator” and additional resources, including the BRTF monthly webinar.

Synchronization methods

“Producers can take advantage of synchronization methods, adding value into replacement heifers,” Funston urged. “In a Nebraska trial, heifers were developed on winter range or corn residue with minimal supplementation, and in the spring, heifers were synchronized with natural service.” 

He continued, “Bulls were turned in, and five days later, the heifers were injected with prostaglandin. In a cycling herd, 25 percent should be pregnant by the time the prostaglandin is given.”

“Synchronization with natural breeding can also be a good intervention for producers who don’t start calving until May or June,” he added. 

Funston has seen a decrease in pregnancy rates in challenged animals, like heifers, that graze year-round and don’t calve until May.

“I think part of the problem is feed quality drops off later in the breeding season, so the heifers quit cycling,” he said. “By synchronizing these heifers, more will breed in the beginning of the breeding season when the feed quality is likely to be greater.”

Producers who synchronize their heifers and follow with natural service could enjoy the advantage of cows calving earlier in the calving season.

“If a cow calves within the first 21 days during the first nine years of her life, she will have the equivalent of one to two more calves than her later-calving counterparts,” Funston explained. “The factory costs the same, but the output can be very different, as a single shot of prostaglandin can return $35 today and possibly allow for a shorter breeding season.”

With today’s low cow numbers and high cattle prices, Funston cautioned it’s not advisable to greatly shorten the breeding season.

“Rather, producers should have their veterinarian identify later-pregnancy animals and market them. A pregnant animal is generally worth more money than a non-pregnant animal, regardless of breeding date. An exception may be an open yearling heifer,” Funston noted.

Key information

Funston suggested producers consider developing replacement heifers by employing a systems approach to utilize feed resources they will be expected to consume as mature cows.

“Heifers can develop up to 50 to 57 percent of their mature weight at breeding and not impair reproductive performance. However, it’s critical an appropriate level of nutrition is available prior to breeding and through calving,” he said. 

“Age of heifers at breeding does make a difference – early born versus late in the calving season. Producers want early born heifers out of moderate-frame cows, since it’s proven older heifers reach puberty sooner, breed earlier, calve earlier and stay in the herd longer,” he added. 

Funston reminded attendees proper feeding of a gestating cow not only influences performance but the future performance of the calf as well, a concept called fetal programming. 

“It emphasizes the importance of meeting the cow’s nutritional requirements during gestation to optimize her reproductive performance as well as the calf’s subsequent production performance,” he concluded.

Utilizing technology allows producers to effectively identify infertile cattle and manage them as feeder cattle, eliminating them from the replacement heifer pool earlier in their productive lifespan. 

Melissa Anderson is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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