Home » Articles »   By Kris Ringwall, North Dakota State University
Monday, July 10,2006

Beef Talk: Grazing plan will eliminate the need to hit panic button

by Kris Ringwall, North Dakota State University
Around mid-June to early July, Mother Nature usually kicks summer into gear. The first noticeable symptom in the upper Great Plains is an increase in temperature and a decrease in moisture. It’s a thin line in determining if a drought is in progress, or if one is simply experiencing good haying weather. There is a concern surfacing, however, that livestock feed may be in short supply. Panic may be too harsh of a word, but some producers do panic. Before the panic button is pushed, some simple principles need to be noted. If a grazing system is not in place, now is the time for action. Go see a grazing specialist and get a plan started. The North Dakota State University Extension Service or Natural Resources Conservation Service, located in almost every county in the country, could help a producer get started. A decade of poor grazing management will take several grazing seasons to correct so normal production can occur. Operations that have effective grazing systems in place are in a position to manage through dry times as well as wet times without upsetting the focused direction of the ranch operation. A basic principle of grazing management calls for 30 pounds of dry matter per day for a 1,200-pound cow/calf pair. A similar amount is destined to end up in a haystack somewhere for every day the 1,200-pound cow needs to be fed when confined. Granted, these are basic numbers that have a significant cushion for waste and some carryover. Larger cows need more and smaller cows need less, but if a producer can find six months of grazing, then six 1,000-pound bales should get baled up and hauled home to provide a feed base for the non-grazing months and adequate acres need to be available during the grazing period. How many acres does it take? Producers can find the answer to that question by visiting a range specialist familiar with their local landscape. For producers stocking 1,200-pound cows in southwestern North Dakota on lowlands, 1.43 acres per animal a month is needed under good range conditions. That figure goes all the way up to 6.88 acres per animal a month in pastures that are in fair range condition, but dry, according to Lee Manske, Dickinson Research Extension Center range specialist. Upland landscapes in good range condition could be stocked at 2.29 acres per animal a month with 1,200-pound cows. These generic stocking rates equate to just less than 14 grazing acres per cow. In addition, six acres are needed for hay, provided 1,000 pounds of hay is harvested from each acre. In a normal year, 2,000 productive acres would support 100 mother cows and their calves until weaning and allow producers to get a good night’s sleep. If you travel east, by the time you get out of North Dakota, you could very easily be closer to 1,300 acres and if you travel farther west or to drier climates in general, the acre requirement is going to go up. None of us have a direct line to Mother Nature. Even Mother Nature simply averages the good with the bad and goes on from year to year. But in these years, where it appears to be drying out, take a quick count of your acres and your cattle. Figure out what type of land you are grazing, and what your typical hay yields are going to be, and get a good estimate of the weight of your cows. If the numbers start to add up to more than what the books are telling you, a survival plan needs to be put in place, which means the producer sells cows or buys hay. Don’t panic. Assess your operation first, seek out good advice, develop a plan and stick to it.

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Monday, June 19,2006

Beef Talk: Keep your bull at home

by Kris Ringwall, North Dakota State University
There is nothing more serious in the cattle business than buying a bull. Much time is spent evaluating available information, such as performance data and pedigree, to assure that the right bull is brought home. Not everyone will use the right information (a personal bias), but when the gavel strikes the podium, the bull has a new owner and home. The process essentially has bonded the bull to the new operation. There is always the need to look over the fence as the bull settles into the new surroundings. With the increasing size of the beef cowherds, multiple purchases are common for more operations. With reasonable cull prices (local sale results show bulls weighing a ton netting more than $1,500 in the sale ring), a very real option is to sell marginal bulls and replace them with improved sires. This leads to serious bull sorting and buying and the ultimate end point, bull turnout. For most beef operations, bull turnout is in progress or soon to begin. Trailing or hauling cows to pasture is one task that, with today’s high fuel prices and equipment expenses, needs to be thought through to minimize trips. Bull turnout is just another reminder of the need to travel and position bulls and cows accordingly. Bulls and cows simply don’t appear in the same pasture. A fairly thought-out process needs to be completed to assure that every animal gets to the proper pasture. The Dickinson Research Extension Center routinely travels 50 miles round trip to deliver bulls to cow pastures. The trip is not going to break the bank, but repeated trips add up. As bulls are prepared for turnout, breeding soundness exams already should be in hand. Any bull that turned up infertile already should have had the opportunity to visit the local sale barn. In case the infertile bull was kept for a recheck, don’t forget to do the recheck and, at the same time, check for new problems that weren’t detected during the earlier breeding soundness exam. As the bulls start detecting the presence of cows beginning to cycle, keep an eye out for any aggressive fighting that has created some lameness. Lameness and subsequent pain are important to detect because subtle structural unsoundness will not improve in the breeding pen. Most producers can recall the new bull that never got turned out. Rivalry in the bull pen benched the bull and the dollars invested before delivery to the cow pasture. It is frustrating, but bulls are bulls and even a roughneck takes second seat to bulls that have a focused intention. Perhaps a sigh of relief is in order as the bulls walk out of the trailer and greet the cows. The territory is ripe for problems and the need to recheck pastures becomes a routine activity, even with high fuel prices. Structural problems or pain related to injury takes a toll. Reproductive issues, including bulls that injure their penis regardless of the cause, can result in a bull that has no interest in breeding cows. A bull not breeding cows easily will cost $40 in lost revenue per day. The bottom line is that monitoring a bull is important. The failure to pick up and replace nonperforming bulls hits the pocketbook. With all the challenges of maintaining an effective, sound and performance orientated bull herd, the end reward is good calves that fit the market. All the headaches are worth it, unless the worst-case scenario occurs: Upon checking the cows, you find the neighbor’s bull is in your pasture.

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Monday, May 23,2005

BeefTalk: Make way for the little guy, he's paying his bills

by Kris Ringwall, North Dakota State University
The beef business could be called a very static business in some respects. Granted, the world of politics certainly keeps life interesting and the daily markets are far from constant. However, in the big picture, individual beef operations do not change much from year to year. The cows usually calve at the same time and the pasture choice seldom changes. The bulls change somewhat, but for the most part, producers are very comfortable buying bulls as repeat customers. The core of a beef operation is the beef cow. Frankly, when a cow is calving on time, without difficulty and bringing in a 500- to 600-pound-plus calf in the fall, who really wants to change much? However, living things do change and selection within a breed of cattle will change the genetics available for use in the commercial cow sector. This is what keeps the manager of a cow business astute and why deciphering what breed to use and subsequently selecting and buying bulls is a huge component of managing a beef production system. Once bulls are purchased, the process of deciding what bulls go to what cows is critical. Recently the Dickinson Research Extension Center, in the pursuit of expanded understanding within the beef business, started breeding the heifers to Loala bulls, Low-lines of Australia. The three bulls were sons of Quartermaster Q117, who had an 11.46 square inch rib eye at 684 pounds at 14 months of age, measured 39.5 inches tall and weighed 1,120 pounds at 30 months of age, according to American Loala Management LLC. The last weight on these three center bulls was 1,105, 1,125 and 1,170 pounds. All scored a condition score of seven. The bulls were born in spring 2000, with births weights of 50, 47 and 51 pounds and had adjusted weaning weights of 330, 343 and 324 pounds in late September and early October 2000. The bulls were two years old when the center obtained them and this will be their third turn out. As noted earlier, change is not easy and speed is not an asset when making change. The center simply was exploring a breed of cattle that potentially would modify the frame score of the mature cows. The first step was preliminary, the heifers calved the way they should and had no calving problems associated with heavy birth weights. The calves were weaned with the other calves, with an average weaning weight of 500 pounds at 233 days of age. The steer calves were held over as yearlings and sent to the feedlot in the fall. The note on the closeout summed it up: "These cattle were very interesting." The steers arrived at the feedlot with a pay weight of 945 pounds, spent 85 days on feed and had an average sale weight of 1,186 pounds. The lot went 77.3 percent choice-quality grade or better, with 31.8 percent yield grade 2, 54.5 percent yield grade 3 and 13.6 percent yield grade 4. The steers met the required amount of ribeye area per hundredweight of carcass and netted back more than $2.27 per hundredweight in carcass premiums. There was very little choice or select spread when these steers were marketed. The bottom line is the calves did not have health problems and zero dollars were invested in treatments. They sold for an average of $1,093 per head. Feed yard costs averaged $168 per head, so the steers netted back $925. It is safe to say that utilizing these Loala bulls as calving-ease sires was not a mistake. There is still much to be learned, particularly with integrating the crossbred Loala heifers into the cowherd, but for now, the center simply is cashing the check. May you find all your Ear Tags.

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Monday, April 18,2005

BeefTalk: Individual tracking system not ready for prime time

by Kris Ringwall, North Dakota State University
The Dickinson Research Extension Center has been actively evaluating the many processes involved in the electronic tracking of cattle. The early prognosis is simple: The industry is not ready for the implementation of a uniform, nationally recognizable numbering system for individual animal identification as called for in the U.S. animal identification plan. This same plan, developed by the national identification development team, also identified the need for a uniform premises identification system. The implementation of the premises allocation process and subsequent utilization of the premises number seems to be on track. The center had excellent success in tracking cattle from premises to premises utilizing existing paper records available from individual producers and local brand inspectors in combination with sale transaction records available through commonly accepted marketing channels. The initial trace, from the calf's birthplace premises (premises 1) to the next owner's premises (premises 2) was 99.5 percent effective. It appears the trace from premises 2 to the next ownership transfer at premises 3 will be more difficult. The primary difficulty will be commingled and re-sorted cattle. The trace from premises 2 to premises 3 can be accomplished, but more personnel will be needed. Cattle can be traced by paper records, provided the records are accurate, legible and completely filled out. It may be very inefficient to trace cattle lots composed of multiple previous owners manually. Once the actual assignment and utilization of premises identification numbers is complete, the tracking of cattle lots from premises to premises should be quite effective. Unfortunately, as noted earlier, premises-to-premises tracking does not and will never track individual animals. The tracking of individual animals will require the implementation of additional technology and associated education throughout the industry. The center, through the efforts of the CalfAid team, actively is evaluating the current state of tracking equipment. The results are mixed and only marginally successful at any point. Two areas of concern surface immediately. The complexity of sorting through the multitude of commercial players and networks literally can bring one to tears. The problem is magnified by the careless and casual use of the term "ISO." The common reply is "yes," we are ISO- compliant. What is ISO? ISO stands for International Organization of Standardization. Therefore, as quoted from the ISO Web site, "ISO is able to act as a bridging organization in which a consensus can be reached on solutions that meet both the requirements of business and the broader needs of society, such as the needs of stakeholder groups like consumers and users." The immediate challenge the CalfAid team encountered was the lack of consensus among contributing players in the electronic identification (EID) business, with no regard for the stakeholders involved. The result is the removal of ISO-compliant EID tags that meet the open standard for mass usage in the industry and replacement with EID tags that meet the needs of individual users, more commonly called a closed system. The second challenge, given the lack of true compatibility across systems, is the lack of a defined acceptable level for transponder performance. Simply put, even if the EID tags do meet the true ISO specifications, there is no guarantee the tags can be read with any level of reliability. At least the center is not out of work. More to come. May you find all your ear tags.

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Monday, March 14,2005

BeefTalk: Tracking, backtracking and retracking—the saga continues

by Kris Ringwall, North Dakota State University
The Dickinson Research Extension Center is evaluating the process involved with tracking cattle. The results have not always been positive, but the data collection continues. The effort is important because the beef cattle industry needs information to assist with decisions relative to age and source verification. The data could be important in implementing a tagging system and a mechanism for tracking cattle as they pass through the many different enterprises involved in raising beef cattle. The center has accounted for the location of 89 percent of the CalfAID calves tagged last fall. The remaining calves are slowly being accounted for, but calf movement never stops, so numbers are relevant to the current date. While initial tracking is intensifying, one needs to remember that this initial step is simply a location step. (For example, where 100 percent of the calves are accounted for, it means producer A tagged 200 calves and the center simply knows 40 calves remain at home as replacements, 50 calves went to feedlot A, 50 calves went to feedlot B and 60 calves went to backgrounder C.) The location of an individual calf may not be known, as that phase of the study is just underway. Initial results indicate that finding individual calves by electronic ID is challenging. Thirty-two backgrounding operations have at least one of the 4,672 calves that originally were tagged. Total CalfAID calves accounted for in the backgrounding facilities to date are 955 calves. Not every facility has been contacted, but of those that were, 18 have 10 or fewer calves commingled with other calves, four facilities have 11 to 20 calves commingled and 10 background feeders have from 23 to 77 calves. The small number of calves in facilities located over the north-central region makes accounting for the tags very difficult. Of the 20 facilities contacted, 11 facilities have cut the CalfAID tags off. Five still have the tags in, but we don't have the ability to access the calves. The remaining four background feeders are making the CalfAID calves accessible to the center to scan the tags. The four background feeders represent 157 calves of the total 955 calves accounted for at backgrounding facilities. In regard to the feedlot side of the business, a similar scenario exists. Of the 2,114 CalfAID calves in 25 feedlots, nine feedlots have 20 or fewer calves from the 4,672 calves, while the remaining 16 feedlots have from 33 to 354 calves. To date, 23 of the feedlots have been contacted. Five feedlots have cut off the electronic CalfAID tags, one feedlot cut off the CalfAID tags and replaced them with its own tags, five still have the CalfAID tags, but we have no ability to access the calves and 13 feedlots have indicated the ability to make the CalfAID calves accessible for scanning. Of those 13 yards, five yards (four managed by one company) have the capability to utilize electronic identification technology. The 13 yards hold 1,331 of the calves tagged through the CalfAID program. If this were a basketball game, the halftime statistics would show that Team Backgrounders is shooting a little more than 16 percent, while Team Feedlot is shooting just less than 63 percent. These numbers reflect the percentage of calves traced to either a backgrounding or feedlot facility and still indicate a potential to read the electronic ID tag. As indicated earlier, these numbers will change. For many reasons, calves that were not available at one time become available and calves that were available become unavailable. It's only halftime, and the center's staff and others are diligently and methodically sorting numbers. If people tell you this is a simple task, they are simply not aware of the magnitude of the task. That's the bottom line. It would help a lot if the ear tags were not cut off. Stay tuned. May you find all your ear USAIP tags.

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Monday, February 28,2005

BeefTalk: Take a look, it's in your hands

by Kris Ringwall, North Dakota State University
"You hold the world in your hands" is an apt description of the beef business. It is evident during the winter beef cattle meeting circuit. There is discussion about tracking cattle, premises-to-premises movement of animals, or going all the way and actually tracking individual animals. The meeting probably will get a little spicy if you add to the discussion the movement of cattle across international borders. I was asked the other day what I think of all this discussion. No quick point came to mind, but I did think of the producers I know and pondered what they must think. The answer is simple; look at their hands. Many of the senior producers that have crossed my path don't need to speak long words in neat sentences. They have lived the beef business. Over the years, their fingers have thickened, their joints have become somewhat molded, their skin is as strong as canvas and they may have a finger or two missing. For some producers, a hand is gone. The beef business has been and still is a "hands-on business." These producers have lived the challenge. Through subzero weather, they carry a wet, soggy, half-dead calf across the yard. Their hands have long ago given over to absolute numbness and control transferred to the arms, which are not as agile but capable of a wrapped rope and tug. Finally arriving at some facsimile of shelter, the producer finds out the cow didn't follow, so back he goes. Three more cows are busy calving. The sun is starting to come up, the north wind is dying down, but at least the calf still is alive as the cow finally is busy licking off the calf. For the calf, soon to follow will be a good feed of warm colostrum milk. The thought of a drink brings up the thought of a good cup of coffee, but your hands are so cold you can't get the lid off the thermos. Even if you could, there is no way you would ever be able to hold a coffee cup long enough to get the coffee to your mouth. However, the thought prevails and soon it's off to the house. Off come the big outer boots, frozen gloves and shoes, the thermal coverall and then chipping the ice off the zipper to expose the metal pull tab. A short tug sends ice flying and finally the coverall slips off, only to be set outside so it doesn't thaw and get damp before the next trip outside. The innerwear is actually outerwear for most folks and generally meant to cover up the middlewear. The middlewear actually may be allowed in the kitchen, if not penetrated by calf fluids. If so, you actually may get down to the true innerwear (not to be mistaken for underwear), generally a layer of long underwear covering short underwear. If the producer is under 25, a set of gym trunks will be in between the long and short underwear. By now, you change your mind on the coffee and decide to jump back in bed, only to be told in not so nice words, "you're too cold." So, the coffee pot perks, the morning radio program is on, and finally some warmth. The radio announcer introduces a local cattle expert from the university for some thoughts on calving. The guest notes, "Now is the time to get all those ear tags in those new calves." You look at your hands, the fingers starting to move, and ponder and conclude, "No way! What is this world coming to?" What do I think? Winter has been pleasant this year, a bit of a reprieve from the cold, but the cold is never far away. Likewise, the technology that is knocking on the door is coming. The gaps are huge, and frankly, we all have a long way to go. Time will tell what our hands do. May you find all your ear USAIP tags.

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Friday, January 14,2005

Tagging cattle challenges time management concept

by Kris Ringwall, North Dakota State University
The discussion remains heated on animal identification. As the winter picks up and the meeting season clicks along, a very common request is for more information on what is new in the world of cattle electronic identification. The Dickinson Research Extension Center is deep in the throws of the animal identification issue. The DREC actively was placing electronic IDs (EIDs) in calves this past fall. Currently, the tracing process is getting started and the total results are still in the future. Numerically, the center physically tagged 3,323 calves and 944 cows at 28 different work sites for an average of 152 cattle at each site. These sites were spread across North Dakota. The team logged 3,762 miles and spent 56 hours and 28 minutes on the road, or an average of a little more than two hours to travel to and from each site. Time management is an important part of any business equation involving agriculture. The time it takes to work cattle is no different. At the 28 sites, the team worked, on average, seven hours per site. The time was divided up into setup, working the cattle, tear down and cleanup. The average total time spent working cattle was four hours and seven minutes per site, with an average of 1.1 minutes per animal worked (including both cows and calves). The efficiency of the team improved as the season went along. Regardless of the time spent working cattle, setup, cleanup and teardown time also must be noted. The team utilized the For-Most portable hydraulic double alley with a 750 chute. The system, as described by For-Most, has a 14-foot adjustable double alley, adjustable overhead grill and a 4- foot funnel section to a 9-foot single alley behind the model 750 squeeze chute and scale. Cattle were fed into the For-Most system through a portable Wilson Wheel Corral, a series of hinged panels that unfold from the travel position to a complete corral for 140 head of calves (600 pound) and can be set up by one person in seven minutes (as described by Wilson). The team found setup time was quick and easy, utilizing available hydraulics and skill and experience with fifth-wheel driving. Two pulling units were required for delivering the needed equipment. An extra pickup was utilized to haul the required computer and electronic equipment. Although equipment placement time was actually minimal, the total setup time (allowing for conversation, location decisions and electronic setup) averaged 56 minutes per site. The tear down time was 34 minutes per site, a reverse of the setup time minus the need to decide where to put everything. In addition, cleanup time was necessary. Cleanup time is the time required to wash and disinfect all the equipment and have the equipment ready and serviceable for the next site. Cleanup averaged an hour and 27 minutes per site. In the typical cattle operation, time is critical. In the sense of the mobile facility, the facility works, but, as always, look at the whole picture before making a conclusion. The final discussion over individual cattle EIDs is far from over. The center could work 200 cattle in a civil 10 hour day. The day breaks down to an hour for travel to the work site, an hour for setup, an hour for lunch, a half-hour for two break periods, a half-hour for tear down, an hour and half for cleanup, an hour to travel home and three and a half hours to work the cows. I'm just not sure there is enough time in the day to get every cow and calf tagged, at least at the ranch level. The saga continues; you also must count all the overhead time and costs. May you find all your USAIP ear tags.

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