July 5, 2012 - Palpation is one management practice that a rancher needs to implement, especially when margins are tight. With lean pastures and rising input costs, keeping just one open cow could wind up costing a rancher more than a cow is worth.
"Every animal that we carry through the winter that is open is an animal that, in essence, is a freeloader -- who is taking money out of your pocket because of the fact that we have to feed that cow through the winter, even though she is not going to bring us a calf to the weaning pen to be able to sell," said Dr. Robert Wells, livestock consultant for the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation.
Some producers may say that the cost deters them from doing routine pregnancy checks on their cows, but in fact, the cost to carry an open cow through the winter might be more than performing pregnancy checks on up to 30 head.
"The cost, if we are doing a blood sampling technique, can be around $4, $4.50 a head," Wells explained. "If we are having a vet come out and they are using ultrasound or manual palpation, it could be up to $5 or $6 a head. That sounds like a lot, but when we look at our feed costs on just one cow, carrying one cow through the winter because she is open can pay for the palpation on probably as many as 25 to 30 head of cows that we went ahead and palpated."
So, pregnancy checking can actually save a producer at the bottomline.
"For a commercial cow calf operation, I don't know if it would pay to preg check multiple times throughout the year," Wells said. "Where it does pay, probably more so, would be on high-dollar, high-end registered stock (where) you really need to get a calf out of that cow every year to off-set her purchase cost."
There are three different types of pregnancy testing for cattle: ultrasound, manual palpation or blood testing, sometimes referred to as tail bleeding. The ultrasound and manual palpation allow a producer to age the calf, ultrasound is also able to the determine fetal sex at a specific window of days of age in utero, and blood testing gives a 'yes' or 'no' on the pregnancy status.
"One of the other benefits to pregnancy testing our cow herd is obviously to identify those open cows so that we can remove them from the herd," Wells said. "Then, that gives us an opportunity to replace her in the same production cycle with a cow that we know is bred, so therefore we can maintain our calving rates at a steady state and reduce the volatility of having years where we have a really high calving rate compared to years where the calving rate may not be so high."
It is important to know when the bulls were removed from the herd so that money is not wasted on pregnancy checks done too early. If a producer does not know the last day the cow herd was exposed to the bull, then they may end up getting a false pregnancy reading and possibly have to test again, or even end up getting rid of a pregnant cow because the producer tested too early and thought she was open.
"The earliest that you can test a cow would be using the blood test and that is going to be 30 days after removal of the bulls from the breeding pasture," Wells said. "Even ultrasound would have a hard time detecting a 30-day-old fetus. That is as early as we could possibly do it. The time that I normally recommend to my producers to do that pregnancy testing/palpation would be at weaning time. The reason is that we already have the cows caught up, so it makes it an easy time to just, after we separate the calf from the cow, to run her through the shoot and do a preg check on her at that point and time."
The biggest decision in what kind of pregnancy checking methods a producer wants to utilize is how quickly they want the results. While benefits of the blood testing include a 95-percent accuracy rate and can be done as early as 30 days into the pregnancy, it doesn't give the immediate results that palpation or ultrasound will. Blood tests have to be sent to the lab and tested, and will take at least 24 hours for results.
"When you are doing a manual palpation, or you are doing ultrasonic pregnancy detection, you get the results back right then when the cow is still in the shoot," Wells said. "So, if she is an open cow, you can make that decision to cull her off and put her in a cull pen to be sold."
Another deciding factor may be if a producer is confident enough to do the pregnancy checking themselves, or they prefer a professional to do the job. According to Wells, the blood sampling is a fairly easy test, as long as a producer is competent in being able to pull a blood sample.
"There is no real science behind having to be able to pull the blood sample itself, it is pretty strait forward," he said. "If you are trying to do the manual palpation, that is a test that I would sure enough either want a veterinarian or at least a technician who has a lot of experience. There is as much art as there is science in that, especially if you are trying to determine age, because of the fact that the pregnancies are going to present themselves in different ways at different ages.
"So, if you are not an experienced palpation expert, it is going to be tough for you to be able to determine that the cow is pregnant every time."
Determining whether or not to pregnancy check should be easy, as the money spent on pregnancy checking could easily be paid back by avoiding carrying an empty cow through the winter. With cattle prices as high as they are, it would easily be worth it to know a cow is empty, sell her and replace her with a pregnant cow that will make a profit.
"I have seen winter annual feed costs as low as $60 for pastures that are native grass and lightly stocked to this last year, because of the drought, we had some winter annual feed cost as high $500 to $600," Wells said. "So when we look at a more normal range, which is going to be that say $60 to $120, and the pregnancy determination is going to cost you about $4.50, the $120 it is going to cost you to carry that open cow through the winter divided by $4.50 would be equivalent to about 26 head of cattle that we could afford to preg check just by off-setting the cost of having to carry one cow through the winter that was open."