2017 Cow Calf Production Survey

Our job as faculty and extension specialists is to assist producers in their chosen industry. Some ways we can assist them are by improving animal health, decreasing costs, increasing productivity, and helping them stay sustainable in an ever-changing global market. The challenge comes when much of the industry is a mystery. It can be hard to know where to focus efforts to have the most impact and what areas the industry is already ahead of the ball game without concrete data on what producers are doing. We can make assumptions from our interactions with producers and make inferences from research completed in other locations. But until we know the true details of our industry, we can never optimize our impact.

In the spring of 2017, my research group at the University of Guelph undertook a survey of the Ontario cow-calf industry for just this reason. It had been decades since a concerted effort had been made to collect extensive data on the cow-calf industry in Ontario. We were making assumptions, but we couldn't be sure if we were right. So, we decided to ask.

The survey was available in spring 2017 and was advertised through producer meetings, social media, and internet and print publications. The survey asked about general demographics of the farm and producer, specifics about the 2016 calf crop, culling and death loss, reproductive management, grazing and feeding practices, animal health, and economics and production. There were just under 400 clicks on the survey, 192 people started the survey, and 83 individuals completed the full survey. Most respondents that did not complete the survey dropped out after the basic demographics when specific numbers were being asked. Respondents commented that it would be easier to collect those numbers in advance, then attempt to fill them in after the fact.

The average herd size of respondents is 61 females. A majority of producers have some commercial cattle (49% commercial only, 29% commercial and purebred) on their farm and 20% of respondents have only purebred animals. Most respondents are male, 45-60 years old, and have an average of 26 years of experience with beef cattle. Fifty-seven percent of producers work off the farm at least part-time.

Surveyed producers have an average breeding season of 118 days. The average weaning rate in cows is 91% and 76% in heifers. Sixty-six percent of producers have their animals preg checked, 41% use AI, and 29% use embryo transfer. It is important to note that a producer may not preg checked or use AI on all females.

On average, 54% of cows and 65% of heifers calve in the first 21 days of the calving season. Ninety percent of cows and 95% of heifers calve with in 63 days or 3 heat cycles. Ninety-six percent of cows and 82% of heifers calve unassisted according to survey respondents. The average birth weight is 84 lbs, but many producers report that they do not have a scale so these are mostly estimates. Eight percent of cows and 7% heifers lost their calves between birth and weaning.

Percent of respondents who use a given intervention on calves within in 24 hours of birth

Figure 1. Percent of respondents who use a given intervention on calves within in 24 hours of birth

Figure 1 illustrates the interventions provided to calves within the first 24 hours of birth. Selenium, vitamin ADE, and weigh and sex were the most common. Producers could choose all of the interventions they used on farm, thus the total is more than 100%.

Reasons for calf losses

Figure 2. Reasons for calf losses

Figure 2 shows the reason for calf losses from 24 hours after birth to weaning for cows (outside ring) and heifers (inside ring). Scours and pneumonia are the most common causes of calf death loss after birth. It is important to note that although most farms have low death loss from predators, one of the farms has a high predator death loss, increasing the average.

Most calves are weaned in October and November. Fifty-four percent of producers use traditional separation, whereas 22% use fence line weaning and 15% use nose flaps. The average (non-adjusted) weaning weight is about 663 lbs, but 50% of producers estimated weights, so this number may be inaccurate.

Most calves are castrated shortly after birth and 26% of producers use pain control. On average 86% of animals in surveyed herds are polled. If dehorning is used, about 26% of producers use hot iron/disbudder, 23% paste, and 29% gouge/spoon. Pain control is always used by 36% of producers and 15% of respondents use pain control based on the animal's age and dehorning method. If pain control is used, 35% of producers use local only, 41% use local and a pain killer (i.e. meloxicam), and 17% just use a pain killer.

Managed intensive or rotational grazing is the most common feeding method during the growing season and baled hay is most common over winter. Seventy-nine percent of producers use minerals at some point during the year, but many producers have times during the year where they don't offer mineral. A majority of producers (66%) never test feeds for quality.

Most producers treat for lice (87%) and internal parasites (64%) and vaccinate for BVD and lepto (88%). The diseases producers are most concerned with are BVD and Johne's, though most producers report they do not currently have an issue with either.

Table 1. Selected results from the Ontario, Atlantic and Western production surveys. Values marked with a "." were not measured in that survey. C = cow, H = heifer.

Recommended Management Practices

Recommended Management Practices
Ontario
Atlantic
Western
Creep feeding
66%
45%
-
Females preg checked
66% C / 64% H
49% C / 47% H
62% C / 71% H
% calving in first 21 days
54% C / 64% H
35% C / 57% H
(87 d C / 57 d H) calving season length
Vaccinate pre-breed
52.5%
45%
-
Low stress weaning
46%
38%
47%
Pain control for dehorning
36%
27%
46%
Pain control for castration
26%
10%
28%
BCS (hands on)
26%
17%
77%
BSE bulls
17%
7%
72%
Calves implanted
2.4%
0%
27%
Lab tested feeds
34%
25%
60%
Water tested in last 5 years
30%
-
40%
Open rate
9% C / 14.5% H
~10% C / Unknown H
8% C / 12% H
Calf death loss
8.2% C / 7.5% H
17% C / Unknown H
5.4% All
Breeding season length
118 C / 107 H
136 C / 112 H
91 C / 86 H

Performance Measures

Performance Measures
Ontario
Atlantic
Western
Open rate
9% C / 14.5% H
~10% C / Unknown H
8% C / 12% H
Calf death loss
8.2% C / 7.5% H
17% C / Unknown H
5.4% All
Breeding season length
118 C / 107 H
136 C / 112 H
91 C / 86 H

Most people are curious about how they stack up against their neighbours. Though these are not our direct neighbours, the industries in the western and Atlantic provinces were surveyed around the same time. You can see comparisons of key values in Table 1.

So what did we learn in the survey? As we think about this, we must keep in mind that these are producer reported values and because we were asking after the fact, we are relying on memory for some measures. Even so, we were able to gain valuable insight on the industry. We can see we have some areas we can improve (such as weaning methods, breeding season length, and pain control for dehorning), there are areas where we are doing well, and there are many areas where we need more accurate data. We have gleaned a fair bit of information about the industry and where we need to focus in the future. Using this information, we can work to help the industry survive and thrive well into the future.


For more information:
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E-mail: ag.info.omafra@ontario.ca