Measuring breeder performance (to improve performance and long-term profitability)

Cow and two calves in a paddock
Breeder performance is a key driver of profitability in northern Australian beef herds.

Profitable beef businesses of the future will be those that have already started some years earlier to improve the inherent fertility of their breeder herd through monitoring performance, identifying problem areas and making sound management decisions.

For long-term profit, breeder performance can be maximised if:

  • each cow conceives early in the mating period and calves within an interval of 12 months or less between calves
  • each cow successfully rears its calf to weaning
  • each calf weaned meets desired weight targets.

Due to the length of the gestation period the average cow must re-conceive within 12 weeks of calving, to produce calves within an interval of 12 months or less.

Table 1. Requirements of a 12 month breeding cycle

Pregnancy (approximately 284 days)9.3
Calving to cycling (six weeks)1.35
Cycling to conceiving (six weeks)1.35
TOTAL12 months

To make progress the first step is to measure reproductive performance

While the ultimate test of a cow’s performance is successfully rearing her calf to weaning, determining problem areas in this complex process, is more difficult.

There a number of reproductive measures that can be used, some of which are listed in the following tables. The level or intensity of management and reproductive history will determine which of these measures are most useful and relevant to the individual business. Producers have found that different measures are relevant under different management scenarios with specific objectives and targets. The Meat & Livestock Australia funded ‘CashCow’ project aimed to determine which measures of breeder herd performance were best related to business profit. Outcomes from this project can be found in the CashCow Final Report.

Seasonal mating and foetal ageing together are paramount for accurate measurement of breeder performance, and for identifying areas for improvement.

Individual NLIS identification is necessary for tracking lifetime performance. Foetal ageing 12–13 weeks after bulls have been removed will identify all current pregnancies in seasonally mated herds. With continuous mating, foetal ageing will not pick up all pregnancies plus it is harder to define the mating period unless ‘late’ pregnant cows are culled.

Measuring heifer performance

From Beef CRC research we know age and weight at puberty are highly heritable. This means genetic progress can be made in these traits.

Once in calf, maiden heifers experience the energy drain of lactating while still growing. This leads to weight loss and failure to re-conceive. However, there are those heifers which are more fertile and do re-conceive. These are the heifers that should be producing the breeding females of the future.

Table 2 lists five measures that can be used to assess heifer performance.

Table 2. Measuring heifer performance

Measure (heifers)Problem areasKey strategies
Age at joining / age at calvingAge / weight at pubertyNutrition, genetics
Critical mating weight (CMW)Age / weight at pubertyNutrition, genetics
Heifer conception %Weight at pubertyNutrition, genetics, disease control
First calf heifer conception %Condition score at calving
Weight at calving
Nutrition (including spike feeding). genetics, early weaning, seasonal mating
Mating period / calving periodBody condition score, sub fertile and infertile bullsGenetics, bull fertility (bull breeding soundness evaluation), season

Measuring mature breeder performance

Body condition at the time of calving is a major factor determining a cow’s ability to conceive while lactating. While the ability of a cow to conceive while lactating is influenced by nutrition and mating management (to prevent dry season lactations), we now know this trait is heritable. This means genetic progress can be made in female breeding cattle in this trait.

Average pasture quality and quantity should be taken into consideration when establishing breeding objectives such as mature cow weight. Body condition score is also linked and should be taken into consideration as well.

Remember that the bulls have the most influence on the genetic progress of the breeding herd. This is due the number of calves they sire in a lifetime. Objective selection of key traits such as fertility and growth is strongly recommended. For more information see the Bull buying checklist.

Table 3 lists a number of measures to assess cow reproductive performance. Depending on the level of management, some measures may be more relevant to some businesses than others.

Table 3. Measuring mature cow performance

Measure (mature cows)Problem areasKey strategies
Conception %Condition / weight, lactational anoestrus, bulls, reproductive diseaseNutrition, genetics, vaccination, seasonal mating, strategic weaning
Branding %Foetal and calf losses (disease, genetic defects, cow factors, predators, stress)Eliminate problem cows (and don't breed from daughters)
Predator control
Disease control
Weaning %All of the aboveAll of the above
Wet cow conception %Lactational anoestrus, condition / weightSeasonal mating, nutrition, genetics, genotype
Conception pattern (% early conceptions in mating period, spread in conception by month)Bulls (infertile, sub fertile), reproductive diseases, poor nutritionBull fertility (bull breeding soundness evaluation), vaccination (for vibriosis, etc)
Adjustment to mating times.
Inter-calving nutrition, genetics interval (ICI)Condition / weight, anoestrus
Bulls, disease
Nutrition, genetics, strategic weaning
% losses conception to weaningFoetal and calf lossesVaccination, nutrition, genetics
Breeder / mature cow weightMature size versus pasture availabilityBreeding objectives to math environment and animal requirements.

Weaning percentage can be calculated in various ways and this makes it difficult to compare between herds. For consistency it should be: number of calves weaned divided by the number of cows mated to produce those calves (inclusive of pregnancy tested empty females and other culls).

Cows which calve regularly are likely to continue to do so. For some producers knowing the percentage of cows calving regularly from year to year is of value in measuring herd performance, and for identifying mothers of future breeders.

Foetal ageing will give a profile of the conception pattern, and hence calving pattern. This is useful for determining the percentage of cows conceiving early in the mating period, and whilst lactating. This information is useful in seasonally mated situations where fine tuning performance is the objective. Replacement heifers should be preferentially selected from these early conceiving cows and conversely, calves from late conceiving cows should be considered cash flow.

Cows with long inter-calving intervals (ICI) are not as profitable to the business as cows which conceive early in the mating period and while lactating. By the time empty (and late pregnant) cows can be identified and sold they have represented a cost in pasture consumption, lick consumption, and handling.

Acceptable losses conception to weaning will depend on how extensive and tightly managed the operation is. In extensive situations, some may view greater than 10% losses as unacceptable. Diseases that cause conception and/or pregnancy failure include vibriosis, trichomoniasis, leptospirosis, pestivirus and neosporosis.

Including weaner performance

Other important measures are weaning weight and percentage of calves weaned at the first round. Weaning weight is a component of reduced age at turnoff, necessary for targeting premium markets. Reducing age at turnoff in turn increases the importance of fertility. Most producers would like as many calves as possible weaned at the first round. A significant ‘spread’ of weaners is not as profitable as a tighter spread. A higher percentage of weaners at first round gives cattle a good start for earlier turnoff.

Table 3. Measuring weaner performance

Measure (weaners)Problem areasKey strategies
Average weaning weight (first round, second round)Time of calving, low inherent growth rates
Dry season lactations
Genetics, seasonal mating, nutrition (including spike feeding)
Proportion of first round weaners Calving creep (Later and later calves due to season, disease and long inter-calving interval)Nutrition, genetics, vaccination, seasonal mating, strategic weaning
Weight of calves weaned divided by cows matedTime of calving, low growth
All of the above.

Measuring profitability

A fertile herd makes a significant contribution towards long-term profitability. Increased reproductive rates enables greater selection pressure on replacement females and thereby greater opportunity for genetic progress and increased profitability.

Marketing non-performers results in short-term profitability. To improve long-term profitability, the fertility of a herd needs to improve.

One way of measuring the profitability of a herd is to calculate Gross Margin per Adult Equivalent (GM/AE) and Gross Margin per Breeder.

The GM/AE can be compared against other herds and also within the herd (for both male cattle and female cattle). Different classes, or ages of female cattle can be compared. The GMs for groups of females in the breeding herd may range from $30 to $150 or more. This is ultimately driven by fertility, assuming acceptable survival rates. The weight of weaner produced will impact on the male GM, and is also related to female fertility.

The Breeding EDGE workshop covers aspects of this article in more detail.

Written by Felicity Hamlyn-Hill, formerly Queensland Government.

More information

Learnings from CashCow – the northern Australian beef fertility project (webinar recording) →

Cash Cow Technical Synopsis (PDF, 8 MB) →

Could your herd be more productive? (PDF, 648 KB) →

CashCow final report (PDF, 4 MB) →

Beef rough indicator and calculator of key performance indicators (BRICK) →