Beef herd
Updated: December 5, 2022
By Sarah Potts

Record Keeping for the Beef Herd

Whether large or small, record keeping is an important part of raising cattle.  Good records play a role in managing animal health, tracking animal performance, and ensuring a high quality end-product for the consumer.  At the end of the day, good record keeping can pay dividends toward your bottom line and help maintain the sustainability of the beef industry.

What types of records are necessary?

There are many different types of records that can be kept on a beef farm and they usually fall into one of four different categories: health, reproduction, genetics, and performance.  The types of records you keep really comes down to the goals and priorities you have for your herd.  A producer who sells breeding stock is likely going to place a lot more emphasis on genetic records than a producer who is marketing calves and stockers.  Nonetheless, keeping some records in each of these areas will be helpful in maintaining a profitable enterprise.  

At a bare minimum, all producers should be maintaining health records on their animals.  This includes having an individual animal identification system in place.  Permanent (e.g., tattoo, brand, etc.) or non-permanent (e.g., ear tag) forms of identification are sufficient, so long as the system is makes sense and is usable.  Certain forms of identification, such as RFID button tags or tattoos, can be difficult to read from a distance and are often not practical as a stand-alone type of identification.  Individual animal identification is important for keeping health records, especially those related to drug treatments and health issues.  

Any time an animal is treated for a condition the following information should be recorded: date, animal identification, condition treated, treatment used and route of administration, meat withdrawal period, and veterinary contact (if applicable).  This is especially important to ensure that animals are not harvested before the drug residues clear their system.  Documenting the condition treated can also help you keep track of the prevalence of a particular problem, either at the herd- or individual animal-level.  If it seems to be a wide-spread, herd-level issue, there may be management changes that can be done to mitigate the problem.   If it seems to be an issue isolated to one individual, perhaps there is some underlying issue with the animal that needs to be addressed or the animal is a candidate for culling.

In addition to health records, reproduction records are also important, namely for cow-calf producers.  This is because the quantity of end-product (number of calves) is highly dependent on the reproductive success of the herd.  The good news is that, like health records, documentation of reproductive records generally does not require any specialized equipment.  Recording the number of cows/heifers exposed for breeding, the number of cows/heifers confirmed pregnant, the number of calves born, the number of calves weaned, and the number of calves that die or become ill, allows you to track the fertility and general productivity of your cows and the health of your calves.  Keeping track of dates, such as the date the bull was turned out or removed, breeding dates (if using artificial insemination), and dates of the first and last calving, can also help you track your calving season as well as identify sub-fertile cows.  

Maintaining animal performance data is yet another way to use records to improve the beef herd.  Performance records are often a little more difficult to obtain relative to health and reproductive records because animals need to be weighed in order to track growth.  However, most producers, whether they are a cow-calf producer, a stocker, or feeder, have access to a weight in some capacity, whether that be the weight of calves at the sale barn or the weight at harvest.   While these are not the most ideal weights to use when tracking the performance of your herd, they are a starting point nonetheless.  Recording weights periodically, such as at weaning, before sale, or at pasture turn-out, can provide much more accurate data that can be used to inform management decisions.  Obtaining weaning weights, for example, allows you to calculate average daily gain (or weight per day of age if birthweight is unavailable) which can reflect performance of both the cow and the calf.  Of course, the biggest obstacle to doing this is access to a handling facility and a scale.  However, these two pieces of equipment, especially the handling equipment, are arguably some of the most essential investments for any beef producer.  At the end of the day, pounds of animal (or meat) is the end product of the beef industry, so doesn’t it makes sense to use weight gain as a means for monitoring performance?

The last type of records that are often kept are those related to genetics.  This information is usually not pertinent to a commercial producer, but is of utmost importance for a purebred or seedstock producer.  Parent lineage records, which includes sire and dam identification, must be thoroughly maintained since genetically superior animals are the end products of these businesses.  Individual animal identification and breeding data are paramount for keeping track of genetic records.  Obtaining blood, tissue, or hair samples can also be used to determine the genomic value of individual animals for breeding or sale.

How do I get started with record keeping?

While it may seem overwhelming to obtain and manage records, rest assured that the process does not need to be complicated.  Simply writing things down and keeping a notebook is a good start.  Having a way to organize the information is also important and will make it easier to actually make use of the data you do collect.  For some, that means having a separate notebook for health records, reproduction records, and performance records.  For others, that means having a spreadsheet on the computer.  Either approach is appropriate as long as it is accessible to the user.  Trying to use a record-keeping system that is too complex or that isn’t intuitive will make it harder to stick with.  

If your record-keeping approach has previously been minimal, try starting out slow and take small steps toward improving your records.  Biting off too much from the get-go can quickly overwhelm you and can set you up for failure.  Maybe that means you will record dates for your breeding and calving seasons this year or that you will record the number of cows confirmed pregnant or exposed for breeding.  Lastly, be sure that the data you do collect will actually get used.  Collecting data just to collect it doesn’t help anyone.