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Setting Goals for Your Cow Herd After the Blizzard

March 12, 2014
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By: Ken Olson, SDSU Extension, Associate Professor & Beef Specialist

This column is intended for producers that lost cows in the Atlas Blizzard and now are in the process of rebuilding numbers in their cow herd. The loss of known genetics and performance is a huge issue. Knowing who your cows were and what they were capable of doing was tremendously important to your goals. It affected how you marketed your calves and how well they fit that market. It determined the genetics in the bulls that you purchased. Now you must rebuild with new cattle that you know less about. Following are some thoughts to consider as you rebuild.

Cow replacement is coming through a variety of channels. A number of folks are receiving donated cows or bred heifers. Other cattle are being purchased using a variety of sources of funding, ranging from donated money from programs like the Rancher Relief Fund, insurance payouts, bank financing, and hopefully soon from disaster relief from the new Farm Bill. Because of this wide variety, knowledge about genetics and past management runs the gamut from none to a great deal if cows or heifers are sourced from a known entity with extensive history. To further complicate matters, a producer that is in the process of rebuilding a herd may have cattle from more than one source, as in some donated heifers, other females purchased through a sale barn, and some other cattle purchased by private treaty from a neighbor or another known source.

This creates a situation with many more unknowns than in the past. How is a producer in this situation to get back to the status quo? It won’t happen overnight, but using appropriate tools and technologies can speed up the process. First, immediately start keeping performance records on the new cattle to determine how their performance matches with the survivors of the original herd.

This performance data can be used in a number of important ways:

  1. Determine which cows fit with your goals so that you keep future replacement heifers that best fit your program.
  2. Select the genetics of future bull or semen purchases to move the progeny of the new cows closer to your goals. This may be a better time than ever to use AI. The reliability of proven AI sires based on EPD with high accuracies will provide the most rapid approach to establishing predictable and repeatable genetic capacity in the progeny of your cow herd.
  3. Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of your new calf crop to determine if they will fit your current marketing plan. If the calves of the new cows don’t fit your existing marketing goals, then you may need to change the marketing goals until you can change the cattle through genetic selection to fit your original goals. What is meant by this? Maybe you were selling weaned or backgrounded calves direct to a feeder who paid top market value because he knew they would bring premiums for high percentages grading USDA Choice, Prime, or perhaps CAB premiums when finished. If you discover the new calf crop isn’t capable of quality grading that well but they are large and have good yield grades, maybe its time to market them for channels such as Laura’s Lean that reward lean, high-yield carcasses.
  4. To accelerate the quantity and value of performance records, it may be important and valuable to add postweaning performance, including feedlot and carcass traits. Learning the value of the calf crop from new cows may best be accomplished by using a calf feeding program such as the SDSU Calf Value Discovery program. Feeding a subset of these new calves in a program like this can jumpstart your knowledge of how they fit the remainder of your original herd.

In conclusion, the key elements of rebuilding a cow herd that was devastated by the blizzard will be to quickly establish what the production characteristics of the donated and purchased replacement cows and heifers are, and then to establish breeding and marketing goals that fit the capabilities of these new cows. These may be temporary changes in goals until you can "re-invent" the new herd based on genetic selection and your management style to fit your long-term goals.

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