Skip to main content

Strategies for reducing open cows this breeding season

June 3, 2024
Strategies for reducing open cows this breeding season

As I have traveled over the past couple of years, there has been a common theme when talking with cow/calf producers: an increase in unbred and open cows within their herds.

This issue has impacted the efficiency and profitability of many operations. However, record or near-record calf prices and cull cow prices have helped alleviate some of the financial strain of having fewer calves to sell. Trying to understand the reasons behind this challenge and evaluating current and additional strategies to address them are crucial for sustaining a healthy and productive beef herd and industry.

Why has there been an increase in unbred cows?

Several factors are contributing to the rise in unbred cows; weather, feed availability and quality, lack of protein and mineral supplementation, poor genetics, labor and time constraints, and management practices can hinder reproductive performance. As a result, cows may fail to conceive or may experience early embryonic loss, leading to increased numbers of unbred animals.

Fluctuating feed prices and availability, labor costs and shortages, and market demands can all impact producers’ ability to invest in reproductive management. In some cases, producers may have prioritized other aspects of production. A focus on calf weight gain and maximizing weaning weights, along with meat and carcass quality versus reproductive performance, could have led to a higher proportion of unbred cows, especially for producers that retained heifers in the cow herd.

What can producers do to help improve reproduction?

The most overlooked animals on the operation tend to be the bulls. They were put to work last year for 60 days, then pulled from the cows and moved to a different part of the operation. They have been out of sight and likely out of mind since.

Here are some questions you might want to ask:

  • When was the last time you looked at your bulls?
  • How many days until you need them to go to work again?
  • What is their current body condition?
  • Do they have enough condition to do the job you need them to do?
  • What about a soundness exam to test semen quality and quantity?
  • Are their feet in proper shape to travel and find the cows?
  • Have they been properly supplemented with vitamins and trace minerals?

Studies show that supplementation with organic trace minerals, such as those in Bioplex® and Sel-Plex®, can enhance semen quality.

A person walking with cows in a field

Description automatically generated

Nutrition management is critical for supporting reproductive health in the cow herd. Ensuring that cows receive adequate nutrition throughout the breeding season can help optimize fertility.

After feeding cows all winter, the excitement of green grass turnout could potentially be a detriment. Really? Green grass could be a detriment? Yes. Depending on current cow body condition and the current plane of nutrition, green grass can lead to reductions in breeding.

Sometimes the grass may be really lush and high in water content, and the cow cannot physically eat enough dry matter to maintain her weight and condition. She is nursing her calf and nearing peak lactation at the same time she needs to get bred. A cow that is losing weight and going backward isn’t going to cycle as well as one that is gaining weight and condition going into breeding.

Ever noticed an increase in consumption — and, many times, an overconsumption — of loose minerals in the spring? Is that because the cows need more, or could they just be chasing some dry matter to fill their stomachs? Should you instead be feeding a little hay while on lush green grass to slow down rate of passage, maintain dry matter intake and prevent the cows from “starving” while standing in belly-deep washy grass?

And let’s not overlook proper animal handling to limit stress, along with sound management protocols for disease prevention, breeding and calving. Producers can also leverage technology and data-driven solutions to help identify and address reproductive issues more effectively. Tools such as reproductive ultrasounds, estrus synchronization protocols, and data analytics software are available to provide valuable insights into herd fertility and assist management decisions.

Unbred cows pose a significant challenge to the sustainability and profitability of each operation and to the beef industry. Understanding some factors that contribute to open cows, and looking at strategies to improve reproductive efficiency, can help producers overcome this challenge and ensure the long-term viability of their operations and the industry.

About the author: 

Bryan Sanderson grew up in Lake Preston, South Dakota, and spent most of his childhood working on pig, crop and cattle farms. After receiving a degree in animal science from South Dakota State University, with minors in ag marketing and ag business, Bryan began his impressive career in animal agriculture. With experience in livestock production, feedlot supervision, sales and finance, Bryan is currently the U.S. beef business manager for Alltech.

I want to learn more about nutrition for my beef cattle.