The Cattle Business - Measuring the Cowherd's Performance
Livestock Update, February 2001
Bill R. McKinnon, Extension Animal Scientist, Marketing, Virginia Tech
With farms records spread out for tax preparation, it is a great time to analyze the cow herd's performance during the past year. Some simple calculations can be extremely revealing about the reproductive and financial performance of the commercial cow/calf operation.
The single most important area impacting the economic success of a cow herd is the percent calf crop weaned per cow exposed. Too many folks just divide the number of calves weaned by the number of calves with which they begin the calving season. In most cases, that calculation is not a true reflection of the reproductive performance of the herd. To fairly examine herd performance, the numbers of females added and subtracted from the herd since breeding need to be taken into account. The following steps help operators calculate "percent calf crop weaned per cow exposed."
Some producers like to talk about having a 95% or higher percent calf crop weaned. Being able to consistently perform at that level would be truly exceptional if the measure is correctly calculated. Year after year, being able to achieve a 90% weaned calf crop is an admirable goal. There are many beef industry professionals in Virginia who estimate the measure is much closer to 80%.
One of easiest tasks that can be performed is to simply calculate the average weaning weight of the herd. It usually involves considering the weights of calves marketed, and estimated weights for replacement heifers retained and lighter weight calves held over for later sale.
When the number of exposed breeding females and total pounds of calf weaned have been determined; it would be informative to calculate "pounds of calf weaned per cow exposed." Dividing the total pounds of all calves weaned by the number of females exposed determines "pounds of calf weaned per cow exposed." This measure gives one of the truest benchmarks of a herd's overall productivity since it takes into account reproductive performance and growth.
One of the best measures of the reproductive and nutritional program within a herd is the percent cows calving within the first 21 days of the calving season. Having a high percentage of cows conceive during the first estrus cycle period of the breeding season results in a heavier calf crop at weaning. A calf born during the first 21 days of calving will be 21 days older at weaning time and probably 40 to 50 pounds heavier. An effective pre-calving nutrition program and short calving season are critical to having a high percentage of cows cycling during the first 21 days of the breeding season. Research has demonstrated that cows in a body condition score of 5 or higher at calving time begin cycling much sooner after calving that thinner cows. In most operations it is nearly impossible to add flesh to cows during early lactation. This fact makes it critical to have cows in proper flesh by calving time. A goal for most herds with a controlled calving season would be for 65-70% of the mature cows to calve within the first 21 days. This target is used on only the mature cows, since it is recommended that first calf heifers start calving three weeks before the rest of the cowherd. To determine the first 21 days of the calving season, being counting on the day the second cow calves.
A more complete and organized performance analysis of a cow/calf operation can be conducted by using SPA-EZ. The nationally utilized SPA (Standardized Performance Analysis)-EZ format provides an organized approach to determining the cost of production and other economic performance measures. The SPA-EZ form consists of a three page worksheet. The worksheet provides a step by step pathway to help the manager calculate what it costs to keep a cow or produce a pound of calf. In the process of completing the SPA-EZ worksheet the operator will become more in tune with the economic and financial condition of the farm business.
The real power in using any herd analysis tool comes from comparing the results against the previous year's performance or with other herds within a region. For those producers who wish to participate, they can submit their analysis to become part of a Virginia SPA-EZ aggregate. The Animal and Poultry Science Extension group will create an aggregate analysis of SPA-EZ forms submitted. Those operations submitting a copy of their SPA-EZ form will be pooled with other Virginia operations to create average production and economic measures. The aggregate information will be distributed back to those farms submitting data. The process will allow managers to identify strengths and weaknesses of their cow/calf business compared to other Virginia operations. Individual farm identity and data is kept strictly confidential. Smaller groups of producers such as local cattlemen's group may want generate a local aggregate.
Whether the individual farm SPA-EZ data is included in a Virginia aggregate or not, the process of cost calculation will be a learning exercise for the business manager. The completion of the SPA-EZ worksheets will require some basic pieces of information to complete the task.
A copy of the SPA-EZ form is available by contacting Bill McKinnon, Animal & Poultry Sciences (0306), 368 Litton Reaves, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA 24061 or (540/231-9160). The SPA-EZ forms are also available in a computer spreadsheet form to simplify some of the math work.
Whether the cow/calf manager takes a detailed and organized approach such as using SPA-EZ or simply makes a few basic calculations, he is now armed with some yardsticks for the enterprise. There is a saying within the industry, "You can't improve what you can't measure." If an operator feels a particular yardstick is not where he wants it, he must determine what is holding the performance back. When next year rolls around, it is time to measure the improvement or know the reason why not. With expected higher feeder cattle prices during the next few years, higher income may cover up poor performance. Smart manager will use the next few years to adjust the operation to be successful during the harder times.