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Virginia Cooperative Extension -
 Knowledge for the CommonWealth

USDA Report Shows Cow-Calf Industry
Poor User Of Technology

Livestock Update, August 1998

John B. Hall, Animal and Poultry Sciences, Virginia Tech

Cow-Calf producers are only using 35-40% of the technology available to them according to the just released results of a 1997 survey of beef cow-calf producers by the USDA National Animal Health Monitoring System. This has serious implications for the cow-calf industry in Virginia and across the US. We've spent a lot of time and effort lately on quality issues and that's good. But this survey shows we aren't doing some of the basic things that are proven to enhance profitability and give us a competitive advantage. This means we have a great opportunity to impact our own bottom line.

For example 40% of all calves (53.7% of all operations) in the US are not individually identified by any method. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, for producers to keep track of which calves need treatment for illness and which cow is their dam. Similarly, 46.8% of US beef cow operations do not individually identify their cows. Something as simple as not eartagging or branding helps contribute to the over 1.8 million beef calves that die between birth and weaning each year. Other factors include not observing cows often enough at calving and poor vaccination or health programs.

Other factors that greatly impact profitability of cow-calf operations include pregnancy rates, culling open cows, feed costs, and calf weaning weight and quality. These factors can easily be improved by useing existing technology such as pregnancy exams and breeding soundness exams for bulls. Some of the rates of usage in typical technologies are listed in Table 1.

TechnologyPercent of Operations Using
Castration of male calves before sale64.0
Body Condition Scoring Cows23.3
Implanting of calves18.8
Controlled calving season46.4
Pregnancy palpation34.5
Breeding soundness exams (all bulls)39.9
Breeding soundness exams (older bulls)17.3
Artificial insemination13.3
Estrous synchronization11.9
Pelvic Measurements6.1

In general, large herds (300+ cows) used technologies at a rate twice that of the average and usage rate for medium sized herds (100 - 299 cows) was 1.5 times the average. However, small herds were consistently below average in their rates of technology use.

A 1992 survey of Virginia producers indicated that Virginia producers were slightly above the US averages in use of some of these technologies. However, large opportunities still exist for improvement. Most of these technologies do not necessarily get cheaper as operations get larger, but time is often a constraint for many small producers. Some Virginia producers are working together through their local cattlemen's associations to increase the use of technologies such as AI.

The 1997 National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) was conducted in 23 states including Virginia and represented 85.7% of the US beef cows and 77.6% of the operations. For additional information contact John B. Hall, Extension Beef Cattle Specialist, at (540) 544-7258 ( or see the NAHMS website at

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