Ask the Consultant: Preg-checking evolves with newest technologies
There is a formidable argument to be made on behalf of the agricultural community as a whole in regards to their willingness to seek out and implement technology.
To some extent, this “early adopter” status has often been overlooked as technology companies seek out new landscapes to launch new products, especially outside of row-crop agriculture.
However, times are changing, and there are many new products that are more readily advertised throughout the agriculture industry.
Although some new innovations have significant appeal and will be deemed plausible for purchase and implementation, I encourage producers to ground their assessment within two basic questions: Does this product have true application and assist me as a producer with making better decisions?
Have I vetted and implemented all existing technology that would make me a better manager? Doing so will prioritize attention and resources toward truly beneficial innovation rather than purchases toward “the next best thing” with little tangible outcome.
Embedded throughout all segments of beef production is the implementation of palpable advancements in technology (e.g., hydraulic chutes, anabolic agents, automated fabrication) and innovative practices (e.g., defined breeding seasons, cross-breeding, boxed beef).
These technologic advancements have allowed the beef industry to generate more beef with less inputs.
Undoubtedly, in order to meet population growth and demand for meat-based protein, this mindset will need to continue and will greatly benefit in assisting with the most important decisions.
As with any business, a metric of utmost importance is net profit, due to the consideration given to both revenue generation and input costs when calculated. In order to optimize net profit, production and financial parameters need to merge in the implementation of wise management decisions that result in positive financial withstanding.
For a cow-calf producer, there is no getting around the important metric of live calves per exposed cow and being able to determine a pregnancy in the first place.
A new era beyond palpation
The ability to determine pregnancy by rectal palpation has been around for a long time; although the process yields very important information, many producers still don’t implement pregnancy determination as a best management practice. Some of this may be due to reliance on the art of physically navigating the reproductive tract and blindly feeling the anatomical differences between a bred or open female.
Although palpation training and even certification is routinely available, the reality is: It takes lots of practice and repetition to be proficient enough to make such an important diagnosis.
This leaves a producer to turn to a qualified veterinarian to conduct this service, which can be difficult due to a lack of availability of a local large-animal practitioner and scheduling conflicts arising from the demand for this service occurring within the same time of year.
Yet the ability to determine and make subsequent management decisions pertaining to open females is paramount to net profit; any inputs put toward those females following the breeding season are sunk costs to the overall operation and will have to be absorbed by the other bred cows in the herd.
Depending upon the number of open females, these sunk costs can be significant, especially when calf prices are soft and margins are thin. Fortunately, there has been technology development that can assist a producer in making this determination.
Use of blood sampling
The technology to determine pregnancy by taking a blood sample has been accessible for about 10 years, but many producers aren’t familiar with its availability. The actual process is pretty easy to implement and falls well within the traditional management structure of preg checking at weaning, assuming bulls have been pulled for at least 28 days.
If annual vaccinations or de-wormer are given to the cow in the fall, then the process is simplified even more because the cow is going through the chute anyway. The only additional requirement is drawing a small amount of blood (approximately 2 cc’s), usually from the tailhead.
Obtaining results once involved shipping the blood sample to a laboratory for analysis, but now a test is available that gives results in about 21 minutes.
These tests are based upon detection of pregnancy-associated glycoproteins (PAGs) and are highly accurate (greater than 95 percent) if conducted 28 days post-breeding and 60 days post-calving. The tests are also affordable at approximately $3 per cow.
The major downside is: Even though technology has developed a faster process, sorting straight out of the chute is still not an option and most likely will require an additional alley sort. If interested in this technology, contact your veterinarian, extension educator, Noble Foundation livestock consultant or conduct a simple search to find a company representative to assist you.
Another evolving technology used for pregnancy determination is transrectal ultrasonography. Although the actual physical process is similar to rectal palpation, the big difference is: Confirmation of the diagnosis is provided visually through the transducer (probe) to the monitor. Therefore, a lot of the guesswork that accompanies rectal palpation is negated due to the practitioner being able to see a fetal heartbeat and movement or lack thereof.
Ultrasound technology has come a long way in terms of resolution, portability and durability; because of this, the ability to determine characteristics such as fetal age and sex, as well as reproductive soundness prior to a breeding season, are more plausible realities. These determinations can be made very quickly with high accuracy and allow for sorting straight out of the chute.
A major challenge is the fact that accuracies are greatest, especially in determining age, prior to the fetus dropping over the pelvic rim which, depending upon your breeding season length and timing, may be difficult to do at weaning.
Another challenge is the cost of the ultrasound machine and transducer that can range from $7,000 to $15,000, depending on if you purchase a refurbished or new machine. If only using once a year and on a small group of cattle, these costs are prohibitive and economically unjustified, especially since other options are available.
The decision to own a machine becomes more plausible for larger, diversified operations that use a machine to determine and sort based upon pregnancy status, age and possibly sex of fetuses, and conduct a reproductive soundness exam on potential replacement heifers within multiple herds at varying times of the year.
Regardless of method or technology, pregnancy determination is important only if you implement management practices based upon the resulting information. This begins with the management of cull cows in a way that leverages seasonal price differences or adds value due to improved condition or weight.
On average, cull cows contribute between 15 and 30 percent of gross revenues back to the ranching operation.
Further management for the pregnant herd could involve sorting the bred cattle into management groups that use labor more efficiently during the calving season. These are areas where technological advancements and subsequent implementation result in potential increased revenue generation and reduced costs with an increase to net profit sitting in the middle.
Therefore, before going out and buying new technology, check out some of the old technology for applicable benefits you might be missing out on.
PHOTO: By drawing and testing a small amount of blood from the tailhead, a producer can detect a cow’s pregnancy with 95 percent accuracy in most cases. Photo courtesy of Noble Foundation.