Results from the 2014 Western Canadian Cow-Calf Survey (WCCCS) show some interesting industry trends and changes in management practices since the last survey was conducted 16 years ago in Alberta.
The 2014 WCCCS was rolled out to producers from British Columbia to Manitoba from November 2014 to February 2015 and asked 58 questions — some new and some the same as in the 1998 survey — about their 2014 calf crop, beginning with the 2013 breeding season. The average age of respondents was 50, just below the average age of all western Canadian farmers, which is 54. Most (86 per cent) were male and had been raising cattle for at least 25 years, and had commercial herds.
“The cow-calf survey was done to generate an updated set of benchmarks for producers to compare to and to guide extension and researchers,” says Kathy Larson, beef economist with the Western Beef Development Centre.
“Cow-calf producers should calculate their production indicators on an annual basis, however, it can be useful to compare numbers to see if they are on the right track with the overall industry.
- More Grainews: Highlights of the Western Canada Cow-calf Survey
Some interesting changes from the previous survey include the shifting of the calving season to later in the year. Sixty per cent of respondents calve in March and April compared to a February calving start back in 1998. About seven per cent of cows in the 2014 survey were found open during preg checking — up about three percentage points from 1998. “An increase in the average open rate is not favourable, and has been raised by producers as an area requiring further investigation and research,” says Larson.
There are improvements in calving distribution, with 55 per cent of females calving in the first 21 days compared to 48 per cent in the previous survey. About 42 per cent met or exceeded the recommended target of 60 per cent calving within 21 days of the calving season start. Average herd size has also increased by about one-third with around 170 females calving per operation in 2014.
“Even as herds increase in size, the importance of adhering to recommended reproduction management practices has not been overlooked,” says Larson. “Seeing increases in the utilization of pregnancy checking and bull evaluation, and improvements to calving distribution are encouraging.”
Less than half of producers pregnancy checked their cows in 1998, and that figure has risen to 60 per cent today. In addition 64 per cent of producers are now semen-testing their bulls, up from 51 per cent. But there is still some room for improvement, says Larson, especially in the area of breeding season length.
“We recommend exposing breeding cows for 63 days or less, and heifers should be bred earlier than the rest of the cows given their longer post-partum interval. Heifers need 80 to 100 days post-partum for breeding, compared to 50 to 60 days for cows, says Larson.
“More than 90 per cent of the producers who responded have an average breeding season length of 92 days for cows and 89 days for heifers. Only 26 per cent of producers were exposing their heifers earlier than their cows.
Calving season length was also longer than recommended in most cases — 92 days for cows and 66 days for heifers. The suggested ideal calving span is 60 to 80 days to allow the most efficient use of labour, produce a more uniform calf crop, and improve productive and reproductive efficiency.
Fewer than 25 per cent of respondents indicated that they used growth implants on their 2014 calves, which is still a surprisingly low number, says Larson. “A two-dollar implant easily pays for itself in increased wean weights,” she says.
Feeding and grazing practices have changed significantly since the last survey. Forty-seven per cent of producers now test their feed for quality, up from 30 per cent, and more producers are utilizing extensive feeding — such as bale grazing, swath grazing, rolled-out forage, crop residue, standing corn or stockpiled grazing as part of their winter feeding regimen.
Rotational grazing is now the most common management practice on both native and tame pastures. Although pasture rejuvenation is one area where there is still room for improvement. A third of respondents never rejuvenate pastures, 38 per cent rejuvenate once every 11 or more years, and 25 per cent every six to 10 years. Only 3.4 per cent rejuvenated pasture every one to five years.
“Pasture is the cheapest feed source and there is a need to rejuvenate pastures as they age,” says Larson.
The Western Canadian Cow-Calf Survey is a collaborative effort involving provincial producer associations, provincial Ministry of Agriculture specialists, the Beef Cattle Research Council, CanFax, and the Western Beef Development Centre.