Record Keeping in Your Beef Herd

It is safe to say that we all know that one producer who has his entire herd health records locked away in that (rusty) steel trap called their brain. They know when each of their cows calved last year, if it was a bull or heifer calf, heifer pelvic measurements, which calves got scours or pneumonia that spring, and what their weaning weights were. Most of us must write that information down, or it will be forgotten. Did you know there is technology available to producers to help improve record keeping and apply that information to different aspects of their operation?

Record keeping has always been essential in the beef industry – particularly to track genetic performance and profitability. It is also crucial in animal traceability and biosecurity, especially in a Foreign Animal Disease Outbreak situation. These records allow us to watch each cow-calf operation’s performance objectively.

Production records are a crucial aspect of advancing a cattle operation. You and your veterinarian can use those records to document and analyze specific data for your herd. Together, you can use that data to help improve your farm or ranch, such as selling open heifers, increasing pregnancy rates, or improving weaning weights. There are diverse ways to take records: whole herd records, individual cow records, handwritten, or using technology like a spreadsheet or an app. There is no perfect way to take records in your herd, but finding the method that best fits your operation is essential.

What to record
As a producer, what you choose to record will depend on the needs of your operation and your ability to record information. The records you keep should be related to what you will use them for, such as selecting heifers, culling cows, or forming a special herd for breeding bulls. If a producer is not currently keeping records on herd performance, the best place to start is by recording the following:
1. Inventory
2. Individual Animal Identification
3. Market Weights
4. Pregnancy Data
5. Calving Data
6. Pasture Usage
7. Feed Purchase Records
8. Sire Information
9. Costs
10. Revenues

Cowboy math
Maintaining whole-herd records requires recording cow, bull, and calf inventories at each phase of the yearly production cycle, recording weaning or market weights, and using that data to monitor herd performance. Standard performance analysis (SPA) measurements, started by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), analyze whole-herd performance.

A standard production cycle starts at the breeding season, followed by pregnancy diagnosis by your herd veterinarian. (Remember, if you pregnancy check early enough in the season, your veterinarian can also give you estimated due dates!) The first bit of cowboy math that can be calculated is pregnancy percentage. Record the number of bred and open/not pregnant cows and heifers, and calculate this percentage by dividing the number of bred cows/heifers by the number of cows/heifers that were exposed to a bull. This pregnancy percentage is an indicator of herd reproductive efficiency.

You can calculate the calving percentage at the end of the calving season. Divide the number of calves born by the number of cows/heifers exposed. This allows us to assess calf death loss due to reproductive health problems, difficult births, or spontaneous abortions.

Weaning time will eventually roll around, which means using more cowboy math to determine the weaning percentage. Divide the total number of calves weaned by the total number
of cows and heifers that were exposed. This will help you assess calf death loss between calving and weaning.

Once our calves reach market weight, it is recommended to record an average weaning/market weight. We can calculate pounds weaned for cows exposed using a little more cowboy math. Multiply the average weaning/market weight by the weaning percentage, which was previously calculated. This tells us about the cow herd’s performance during that production cycle.

If you are going to record information about individual animals, you must be able to identify each animal in the herd over several years. Cattle health and production records are especially useful for evaluating individual animal performance, investigating disease outbreaks or a drop in production, and measuring the impact of management interventions.

Producers need to improve herd efficiency by increasing the value of their animals sold while dropping the cost of production. Using records is essential to find sources of inefficient production so that management changes can be implemented and resulting production efficiency tracked. According to The Bovine Practitioner, “Continual consolidation within the U.S. beef industry, as well as societal concerns for sustainable agriculture, animal traceability, and antimicrobial stewardship, increases the importance of accurate and reliable cattle health and production records on cow-calf operations.” These records can help producers make informed decisions for operational efficiency, regardless of size.

Suppose you are considering changing your record-keeping system. In that case, it is vital to implement a system that gathers all the information you need to make the proper management decisions you are trying to reach, yet in the simplest way possible. If you are unsure about where to start, reach out to your herd veterinarian! They would love to help you make your herd successful; they are there to help, and not just during after-hours emergencies!

The goal of any record-keeping system is to allow the producer to gather information quickly, so they can see their herd’s productivity and use individual data to make changes to improve herd efficiency. Yes, record-keeping means more work for a producer initially, but it should be considered a valuable tool to help a ranch run more efficiently and is worth taking the extra time to do.