Beef cattle and calves are grazing
Updated: November 3, 2022
By Sarah Potts

How to Evaluate Animal Performance in the Cow-Calf Herd

Most of us have heard the saying “You can’t manage what you don’t measure”, and this definitely applies to livestock production. Records are an important part of any business. As businesses, all cow- calf producers keep some kind of financial records, at the very least, for tax purposes. Financial records are undoubtedly some of the most valuable pieces of information that a farm can keep. However, it is important to remember that there is value in other types of records as well, namely those related to animal production and performance. At one point or another, we all fall into the trap of evaluating a management change without actually looking at concrete numbers. Collecting performance data can help producers objectively track their progress toward a goal or evaluate particular management changes.

Collecting data to help evaluate herd performance can be a time-consuming endeavor, which is why it is often neglected on the farm. However, understanding exactly what information producers want to glean from the data can help determine the most efficient way to collect it. It is important to remember that just because certain pieces of data can be collected, doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be useful. Data should be collected with a purpose and there should be a clear vision for how the information will be utilized. For a cow-calf operation, there are a few key pieces of data that can be used to help paint a good picture of how the herd is performing. These data are necessary in order to calculate some common measurements of performance, or benchmarks. These benchmarks can then be tracked from year to year to help producers understand the dynamic of their herd’s performance.

Common Cow-calf Benchmarks:

  • Length of Calving Season: This is calculated by counting the number of days between when the first calf was born and when the last calf was born. In general, the more narrow the calving season, the more uniform the calves will be at weaning, which can be beneficial in terms of merchandising or making post-weaning management decisions. Some producers also prefer to keep the calving season narrow for their own time-management needs. A shorter calving season can be acheived by reducing the length of the breeding season and culling animals that do not get pregnant during the specified time frame. Achieving a shorter calving season cannot be accomplished overnight without heavy culling, so producers should be patient and understand that it may take a few seasons to reach their goal.
  • Pregnancy Rate: This is calculated by dividing the total number of females confirmed pregnant by the total number of females exposed for breeding, including those that did not conceive. This measurement can help producers determine if there are fertility issues with their cows or their bull. The Cow Herd Appraisal Performance Software (CHAPS) from North Dakota State University suggests aiming for a pregnancy rate of 94% or above.
  • Number of Cows Calving in the First 21 Days of Season: This number can give producers a rough idea of how fertile their cows were at the beginning of the breeding season. Ideally, about 60% of cows will calve during the first 3 weeks of the calving season. If fewer cows are calving at the beginning of the calving season than is desired, it could indicate possible fertility issues at the beginning of the breeding season. A common culprit is low body condition of cows during breeding season, since they are still producing milk for their calves at this time. Addressing this nutritional issue may help to improve fertility and increase the percentage of cows calving earlier in the season.
  • Calf Death Loss: This is calculated as the number of calves that die before weaning divided by the total number of calves born, including those that died. Ideally, producers should lose less than 3% of their calves each year.
  • Average Weaning Weight: This is an important measurement that can sometimes be hard to come by if a producer does not have access to a set of scales. However, weighing calves at weaning can be extremely helpful in evaluating productive performance of the cow-calf herd, since pounds of calf produced is ultimately the end-product of this type of operation. Weaning weight can reflect the effectiveness of a particular bull from a genetic standpoint as well as a cow’s milking ability.
  • Average Weight per Day of Age: Most beef herds to not collect birthweights on their calves. Unlike average daily gain, average weight per day of age can be used to evaluate growth in absence of a recorded birthweight. It is calculated by dividing the weaning weight of a calf by its age in days and can give an idea of the growth-potential of the calf and the cow’s milking ability.
  • Pounds of Calf Weaned per Cow Exposed: This value is perhaps one of the most important indicators of animal performance on the cow-calf operation. It is calculated by totaling the weaning weights for all the calves and dividing by the total number of cows that were bred during the previous breeding season regardless of whether or not they conceived. The overall target is for every cow in the herd to wean 50% or more of her body weight. Thus, a herd with an average mature cow body weight of 1,200 pounds should aim for about 600 pounds for this benchmark. Knowing the average body weight of the mature cows in the herd (3 years or older) can help refine this calculation and make it more applicable on an individual-farm-basis.

Regardless of the current data collection methods on the farm, it is never too late to start collecting data with a purpose and putting it to good use. Most of the benchmarks discussed here can be calculated through simple accounting and do not require specialized equipment. However, having the ability to weigh animals can help producers gather additional information from their animals which can help them take their operation to the next level.

A final note of caution when using benchmarks. While it can be tempting for producers to compare their measurements to those of their neighbor, it is important to remember that every farm is unique and that farms can differ significantly in terms of their goals and challenges. Keep this in mind when comparing these benchmarks across farms.