Father and son team Billy Glenn Turpin and Scott Turpin are not newcomers to the idea of a tight calving season. Go back 25 years when the Richmond, Kentucky, producers condensed their 90-day season into just 60 days. They aren't ever going back.
The No. 1 reason for a tight calving season is pure economics, Scott Turpin says. They usually participate in Angus breeder James Coffey's buyback program, where a premium is offered for weaned, uniform groups of feeder calves sired by Coffey's bulls. He groups them with other calves from his buyback program and sends them to a feedlot.
"The University of Kentucky has research to show that if you sell one calf, you'll get a deduction in price," Scott explains. "If you sell a group of five calves, you'll get a premium. With 10 or more, they'll bring close to what a load lot will bring."
The Turpins' mid-August trip to the stockyard this year confirmed it. Because the calf crop from their 120-cow herd is so uniform, they were able to sell 33 steers in one group. They sold for within 2 or 3 cents of what a truckload lot was bringing, Scott Turpin says.
THE 21-CENT DIFFERENCE
University of Kentucky livestock economist Kenny Burdine agrees with the Turpins that uniformity is the key to better prices.
Based on research he and co-worker Greg Halich did in 2015, he points out there is as much as a 21-cent difference per pound between selling one weaned and preconditioned calf, and selling a truckload of similar calves.
"Most producers are not large enough to market a truckload lot of calves," he says. "But, there is a huge benefit in having a calf crop uniform enough that calves can be sold in even five- to 10-head groups at auction. That's something small producers can target."
For Eden Shale Farm's Dan Miller, the ability to market uniform calves is first on his list of the benefits of a tight calving season. However, shortening the demands of calving season is a close second.
"Calving is hard and no fun. Who wants to do it for half a year? We just calve during March and the first two weeks of April, and nothing else. We can pay more attention and probably save some calves," Miller says.
SHORTER SEASON, BETTER MANAGEMENT
Pedro Fontes, University of Georgia (UGA) animal scientist, says a shorter season allows producers to better manage all aspects of the cattle business.
"The nutritional needs of cows in peak lactation are greater than those of dry cows in the last third of pregnancy. If you can manage them as a group, you can save money on feed. Also, when you're deworming or vaccinating, it is easier if cows are in the same place in their production cycles, and the calves are the same age."
THREE TOOLS TO MAKE THE SHIFT
1. Culling plus nutrition tighten breeding windows:
Tightening the breeding and calving season doesn't have to mean a one-and-done binge of culling cows that fall outside your new breeding window.
"Do it gradually," says Fontes, noting it's alright if it takes as long as three to six years to get there.
Once you decide when you want to calve, UGA has online tools to help determine when to turn bulls in and when to take them out.
Fifteen years ago, the Turpins converted their spring calving season into fall and spring seasons, both 60 days in length. They give nutrition most of the credit for maintaining their tight seasons.
Scott Turpin says, "In the winter, we feed a cattle cube that has 20% protein and 4% fat, as well as vitamins and minerals. It really works for us." Most of their cows are at a 5.5 to 6.0 body condition score (BCS) when they start calving, he adds, and he doesn't mind if heifers get up to a 7 BCS, since they lose weight so rapidly when they calve.
Because cows are in good body condition, they not only breed back (their fall calving herd often has conception rates of 96 to 98%, while the spring herd is a few points lower), they also synchronize themselves.
"Once you have two or three years with a 60-day season, 70% of the calves will come in the first 21 days," Scott Turpin explains. "Twenty to 25% will come in the next cycle, and 5 to 10% will come in the last cycle."
2. Synchronization and timed AI:
In 2013, the Kentucky Beef Network (KBN), an arm of the Kentucky Cattlemen's Association, took over Eden Shale Farm from the University of Kentucky. The group started the herd with cow/calf pairs purchased from local stockyards.
The first calving season was 105 days long. Now, using synchronization and timed AI, the breeding season is down to 56 days for its 100 mature cows and 31 days for its 40 heifers.
"With the cows, we use a typical synchronization and timed AI protocol, then turn in the bulls 10 days after the timed AI," Eden Shale's Miller says.
They insert a Controlled Internal Drug Release (CIDR) device in each cow for seven days, pull the CIDRs then AI between 62 to 63 hours later.
"Year in and year out, we average a 60% conception rate with timed AI," he continues. Their total conception rate usually averages around 87%.
"When we clean up, we probably use more bulls than most producers, one bull to 15 cows," Miller adds. "They start cycling back in a pretty tight cycle, and we want as many bred as possible as quickly as possible."
Their heifer breeding program is more intense. They insert CIDRs, pull them five days later then heat-detect for 48 hours. They breed any heifer that comes in heat. After 48 hours, they time-breed the remaining heifers.
Twenty-one days after the timed AI, they insert CIDRs again in all the heifers for seven days then ultrasound for pregnancy when they pull the CIDRs, which is on Day 28 after the timed AI. If they aren't pregnant, they're given an injection of prostaglandin and, three days later, are AI-bred again.
"Last year, 72% were pregnant after the first round," Miller says. "That was an all-time high for us. But, only 30% of the heifers that were still open were pregnant after the second timed AI."
The last two years, Miller and his crew haven't used any cleanup bulls with the heifers. If they're still open after the second AI breeding, they're sold as feeder heifers.
"If a heifer doesn't get bred until the third cycle, she's late enough she's not going to breed as a second-calf heifer. We're going ahead and culling her before we put any more inputs in her."
Miller says the cost of synchronization and AI is around $40 to $50 a head for both cows and heifers, depending on the price of the semen.
3. Synchronization and natural service:
If you don't want the added expense and labor of AI breeding, UGA's Fontes says, "synchronization by itself can make cows come into heat and get more cows pregnant in a shorter time."
He recommends two different synchronization protocols, depending on whether cows are cycling. If they are early in the postpartum period and not cycling, use a CIDR for seven days, and then turn the bulls in when you remove the CIDR.
If the cows are already cycling and are in good body condition, one shot of prostaglandin goes a long way toward synchronizing them so more will get bred in a narrower frame, Fontes says.
He adds, "Turn the bulls in four or five days before you give the prostaglandin shot. If she's in heat, the bull is going to breed her, and she won't respond to the prostaglandin. It won't hurt the pregnancy of the cow. The prostaglandin kills the corpus luteum (CL) but only works when the CL is six days old or older."
By synchronizing with a single prostaglandin shot, Fontes says producers should get a 10 to 20% increase in the number of cows calving in the first 20 days of the season. The number might be even higher if a greater proportion of them are cycling before the breeding season.
Surprisingly, Fontes says you may not have to increase your bull battery with synchronization.
"An experienced bull that has passed a Breeding Soundness Exam and has good semen quality should be able to breed 25 cows after using one of these synchronization approaches. If it is a younger bull, you need to be more careful."
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