Top ten management practices for cow-calf production


Source: Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs


The following identifies and quantifies 10 of the most profitable management practices for cow-calf production. The techniques were evaluated in terms of net economic benefit (revenue generated by a practice less the cost of implementation). Additional comments are included which describe the impact these management practices may have on the production system. The physical and economic impact of the procedures were estimated using assumptions based on a typical Ontario herd. The results should apply to the majority of those herds which bear a close resemblance to the example herd. However, managers must interpret the results with regard to their own specific production system. The information presented is based on a broad range of sources. The management practices are presented in approximate order of estimated economic benefit.


  • cow herd calving in spring
  • calves weaned in the fall and marketed to feed lot sector
  • average 200 day adjusted weaning weight of 550 lbs
  • average lbs weaned per cow exposed of 500 lbs
  • price received for calves is $1.10/lb
  • economic benefit is based only on the increased weight and/or value of the calf crop available for marketing; other benefits are listed for interest

Crossbreeding system to utilize heterosis (hybrid vigour)

  • improvement in conception rate, calf survival
  • increased weaning weights and cow longevity
  • cumulative 15-25% increase in lbs weaned/cow exposed
  • $83 – $138 per cow exposed


  • variable; approximately $0 – $40 per cow
  • potential of increased management and more record keeping
  • potential of increased number of breeding pastures

Net Return: $83 – $98 per cow exposed.


  • adequate planning required to minimize potential problems, for example calving ease
  • not necessary to use breeds with large differences in mature size
  • largest benefit comes from use of cross bred cows
  • this practice complements # 2 below

Crossbreeding system to produce a premium feeder calf


  • a large frame X medium frame calf with a good muscle:bone ratio commands a premium of approximately 15 %, compared with straightbred medium frame calves
  • premium of 10% compared with straightbred large frame breed calves
  • $70 – $110 per cow


  • variable, approximately $20 – $40 per cow
  • more record keeping and overall management

Net Return: $ 50 – $ 70 per calf marketed


  • important considerations for breeding stock selections include muscling and finish weight
  • benefits from selling premium quality calves should be combined with production system benefits from practice #1; total economic benefit from crossbreeding is $100 to $170 per cow exposed
  • use breeds which complement each other for key traits

Compressed Calving Season


  • more early born calves results in heavier average weaning weight
  • reducing calving season from 120 to 90 days would result in an average weaning age increase of 30 days, or about 65 lbs per calf ( $71 per calf


  • $10 – $40 per cow; more for some situations
  • additional feed inputs, herd health program, cow culling, breeding soundness evaluation of bulls

Net Return: $30.00 – $ 60.00 per


  • more uniform calf crop to market
  • facilitates effective management
  • requires careful attention to herd nutrition, health management, fertility of breeding stock

Castrate at an early age and implant

  • market premium of $4.00 – $6.00 per cwt for steers versus intact males
  • implant increases weaning weight 15 – 25 lbs over non-implanted steer (equivalent to weight of intact males


  • $5.00/hd ($3.00 castration + $2.00 implant)

Net Return: $17.00 – $28.00 / male marketed &


  • minimal stress and health risk with early age castration versus older age

Creep feed calves when pasture quality is poor


  • increase in weaning weight of 40 – 60 lbs compared with non supplemented calves
  • efficient use of supplementary feed when pasture limited ie. 6 lbs feed : 1 lb of extra gain


  • 300 lbs creep for 50 lbs gain
  • 300 lbs at 6 c/lb = $18

Net Return $32 / calf marketed


  • economic benefit from creep feeding decreases as pasture quality increases
  • unlimited high energy creep may impair udder development of some small/medium frame heifer calves; may decrease price/lb for small/medium frame calves

Use of a herd sire with known, superior genetics for preweaning growth


  • increased weaning weights, compared with average or inferior sire
  • known genetic potential reduces risk in selection
  • for a + 20 EPD bull, 20 lbs increase in weaning weight per calf, relative to breed average
  • for a + 20 EPD bull, relative to a non-evaluated bull (example – 20 EPD equivalent), 40 lbs increase in weaning weight


  • $300 – $500 price premium for herd sire
  • $4.00 – $6.70 per calf sired

Net Return : $15.00 – $18.00 per calf marketed, compared with calves of breed average sire.

Net Return : $30.00 – $36.00 per calf marketed, compared with calves of non-evaluated sire (example used is assumed to be the equivalent of a -20 EPD for Weaning Gain)


  • EPD = Expected Progeny Difference (within breed
  • ABC = Across Breed Comparison (among breeds
  • weaning weights increase with growth EPD of sire
  • tested sires also have been evaluated for other traits
  • assumes each bull used for 3 years, breeding 25 cows/year
  • superior genetics transmitted to replacement heifers
  • higher salvage value will offset at least part of purchase price premium

Dehorn calves at a young age


  • properly dehorned calves receive a price premium of $3.00 – $5.00 per cwt compared with horned calves
  • early dehorning imposes less stress on calf and avoids weight loss incurred closer to sale date


  • $ 3/ head for dehorning

Net Return : $13.50 – $24.50 per calf sold


  • polled breeding stock (with superior genetics) can minimize the need to dehorn
  • degree of stress and risk of health problems associated with dehorning increases with the age of the calf

Improved Grazing Management


  • improved calf and cow nutrition resulting in increased weaning weights and higher conception rates
  • average improvement of 15 lbs weaned/cow exposed ( $16 per cow
Cost variable depending on management practice employed
  • capital cost of extra fencing for grazing management amortized over 15 years is approximately $1.50 – $2.50 per cow per year

Net Return: $12.50 – $14.50 per cow


  • improved cow condition going into winter
  • improved carrying capacity of land base
  • costs used are for high tensile electric
  • assumes good soil fertility management

Ration Formulation


  • improved reproduction
  • improved weaning weights
  • increase of 10 lbs weaned per cow exposed
  • improved growth of female replacements
  • $1.00 – $2.00 per cow for feed analysis

Net Return: $10.00 – $12.00 per cow exposed


  • improved allocation of feed resources
  • selection of appropriate feed supplements, including minerals
  • feedback on forage management

Pregnancy Checking


  • culling of open cows reduces feed consumed by non-productive females
  • early identification of open cows allows them to be marketed to best advantage
  • $15 – $20 per cow


  • $2 – $3 per head vet fee

Net Return: $13.00 – $17.00 per cow


  • timely pregnancy checking allows the detection of problem situations earlier
  • open cows may be sold immediately or fed to a higher level of condition before marketing
  • benefits from pregnancy checking decrease as conception rate increases


Background for Ten Top Management Practices

1. Crossbreeding To Utilize Hybrid Vigour
  • the improvement in performance of crossbred cattle relative to their parents (ie. hybrid vigour) for conception rate, calf survival, growth to weaning and milk production are exceptionally well documented in scientific literature
  • crossbred cows wean approximately 15 % more lbs of calf per mating opportunity due to higher conception rates, increased calf survival, and increased milk production
  • crossbred calves wean about 10 % heavier than comparable straightbreds due to a higher survival rate and increased preweaning growth
  • when considering breeds which are very diverse in performance parameters, some “breed effects” will overshadow heterosis for preweaning growth and milk production, but the most significant benefits (conception rate and calf livability) will still be realized
  • additional revenue calculated as:

    500 lbs/cow X $1.10 X 115% = $83
    to 500 lbs/cow X $1.10 X 125% = $138

  • costs include fencing to provide additional breeding pastures or purchase of F1 replacement heifers
  • net return is:

    $83 – $20 = $63
    to 138 – $40 = $98 on a per cow basis

  • reference OMAF Factsheet “Crossbreeding Systems For Commercial Beef Production” 420/36
2. Crossbreeding To Produce a Premium Feeder Calf
  • premiums exist for crossbred large X medium frame feeder calves with a good muscle:bone ratio in most Ontario markets
  • specific crosses receive larger premiums in some markets
  • both straightbred medium frame and straightbred large frame calves are discounted
  • average premium is estimated to be $15/cwt, based on a survey of Northern Network Feeder Sales
  • costs are the same as for (1.) above
    additional revenue calculated as:

    $605/calf X 115% = $695
    $695 – $605 = $90

  • net return is

    $90 – $20 = $70
    to $90 – $40 = $50

  • adding the benefits from improved production due to heterosis and the market price premium gives a huge economic advantage to crossbreeding ($100 to $170 per cow); it is an essential component of commercial cow-calf production
3. Compressed Calving Season
  • example deals with a herd with a typical calving spread of 4 months
  • management can applied fairly easily to reduce this by 30 days
  • costs include lab analysis of forages, purchase of some extra feed supplements, pregnancy testing and some cow culling
  • assumes a “normal” (bell curve) distribution of calving dates>
  • assumes the average calving date is moved up by 30 days
  • additional calf weight is 30 days X 2.25 lbs/day = 67.5 lbs
  • additional revenue is

    65 lbs X $1.10 = $71.50 per calf

  • net return is

    $70 – $40 = $30
    to $70 – $10 = $60 per calf

    Reference: OMAF Factsheet “Breeding Season Management” 420/10.

4. Castrating At An Early Age And Implanting
  • assumes average price premium of $5/cwt for steers relative to intact males
  • assumes that the 5% reduction in preweaning gain of steers relative to bulls is compensated for by the hormonal implant
  • assumes minimal health risk if calves are castrated properly at a young age
  • additional revenue is

    $.05 X 550 lbs = $27.50

  • cost is $3/head for castration plus $2/head for implant
  • net return is

    $27.50 – $5 = $22.50 per calf marketed

    Reference: OMAF Factsheet “Castration Of Beef Calves” 420/10.

5. Creep Feeding When Pasture Quality Is Poor

This can be a very profitable management technique when applied in anappropriatesituation. Conversion of creep to extra gain is quite efficient when pasture is limited in quantity and/or quality (example conversion of 4-6 lbs feed to 1 lb of gain). Profit is determined by the cost of creep feed relative to the price for calves. If pasture is good, then calves will tend to substitute creep for pasture, reducing the economic efficiency of creep feeding. Conversion of creep to extra gain may increase to 17:1.

Reference: OMAF Factsheet “Creep Feeding Beef Calves” 420/50.

6. Use Of A Herd Sire With Superior Growth Genetics

This really breaks down into 2 stages:

  1. use of a sire with knowngenetic potential (applied risk management)
  2. what is the degree of genetic superiority for growth (balancing growth potential with other traits ie.calving ease, milk etc.)

To evaluate this practice, we have to compare the expected performance of calves from the superior sire to calves from a sire with a lower level of genetic merit. How high and low do we go? I have used a bull with a Weaning Gain EPD of +20 lbs, and compared him with an average bull of the breed (EPD of 0), and also with a bull with -20 EPD for Weaning Gain.. The negative bull would represent the down side of choosing a non-evaluated bull.

Reference: OMAF Factsheet “Ontario Bull Evaluation Program” 420/41.

7. Dehorn Calves At A Young Age

The example assumes that the dehorning is done correctly, with minimal stress, to young calves. It assumes that sale weights are not affected by the procedure, which is reasonable if things are done “right”. Price premiums are from major stocker sale results in Northeastern Ontario from 1991, 1992 and 1993.

Reference: OMAF Factsheet “Dehorning of Beef Calves” 420/20.

8. Improved Grazing Management

Figure for improvement in lbs calf weaned/cow exposed from analysis of Red Meat II Herd Health data by Dave Alves, OMAF. Costs for implementing more intensive grazing management are for subdividing a 50 acre pasture into 6 paddocks using 2-wire permanent electric fence. Reference for costs from “Farm Fencing Systems” by Mark Leahy, OMAF.

Reference: OMAF Publication 19 “Pasture Production”

9. Ration Formulation

Increase in lbs weaned /cow exposed from analysis of Red Meat II Herd Health survey by Dave Alves, OMAF. Cost based on current lab fees, and assuming 2 feed tests per year. Also assumes that ration formulation service is available at no cost to the producer.


OMAF Factsheet “Basic Beef Cattle Nutrition” 420/10
OMAF Factsheet “Beef Cow-Calf Nutrition” 420/50

10. Pregnancy Checking

This can be combined with other management practices ie. parasite control, re-tagging etc. to reduce # of trips through the chute. Veterinary exam of problem breeders etc. at this time can be very helpful. In some cases it is better to feed out empty cows to a higher weight and flesh condition to obtain a higher selling price


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