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Birds and Bees and Breeding Beef Cattle: Two New Webpages Cover Breeding Cow and Bull Management

red bull, cows and calves on green grass

The goal of a cow-calf operation should be for each breeding female to deliver a healthy calf to weaning every year. While this sounds like a simple, straightforward outcome, there is a long list of variables that must fall into place before that can happen. 

In addition to maintaining a cow herd that is productive in the short term, a breeding program should support the objectives of your farm over the long term. Whether a producer is aiming to raise commercial or purebred breeding stock, effective reproductive management should sustain continued improvements in genetics and production potential.  

What factors are important for breeding cow management?

Maintaining breeding momentum can be the difference between setbacks and success in a beef herd. Determining your breeding season will ultimately determine when the calving season will occur (winter, spring, fall, summer). Labour availability, feed resources, infrastructure, weather and marketing goals are all important considerations. 

The balance between reproductive success and failure depends on: 

  • Beef cow nutritional status 
  • Calving distribution 
  • Bull management or artificial insemination (AI) practices  
  • Herd-health status and disease prevention 
  • Nutrient deficiencies or toxins 
  • Calving ease or interventions 
  • Heifer management 

Maintaining Reproductive Momentum

The average length of time it takes a cow to be ready for re-breeding following calving is 50 to 80 days in most beef herds (80 to 100 for heifers). Cows calving late one year due to a reproductive problem are significantly more likely to be open the next year, making it important to “front-load” the breeding and calving seasons to ensure more cows calve earlier.  

Having a defined breeding season, where a bull is placed with the cow herd and removed after approximately three cycles, can help producers achieve a calving distribution of 60 to 90 days in length.   

Studies show there are economic benefits to having at least 60% of cows and heifers become pregnant during the first 21-day cycle. This leads to improved calf health and marketing management thanks to a more uniform calf crop of a similar age. A good benchmark to aim for is 85% of calves arriving by the end of the second cycle and 95% by the end of the third cycle.  

Nutrition and Body Condition Scoring

Nutrition is the most important factor affecting cow fertility. Maintaining an ideal body condition score (BCS) of 3 will help ensure a cow maximizes her productivity by producing a calf every 365 days. 

  • The nutritional requirements of beef cows will change depending on stage of reproduction. A common rule of thumb is to provide cows with 55-60-65% Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN) during mid-gestation, late-gestation and lactation.  
  • Test water and feed to ensure that there are no nutritional deficiencies or anti-quality factors that may affect nutrient intake and the type of trace mineral supplementation required. 

Bull Power

Bulls represent a significant investment to the herd. Careful year-round management will ensure bulls are at peak performance when breeding season arrives and can help achieve longevity. 

An appropriate bull-to-cow ratio can be anywhere from 1:20 and 1:30, however that can depend on terrain, total number of animals in a breeding field, social behaviour/dominance and other factors.  

To optimize bull breeding, consider the following: 

  • Prior to breeding, have your veterinarian perform a Bull Breeding Soundness Exam (BBSE) on your sires.
  • Ensure your bulls are up to date with herd vaccinations and, when possible, vaccinate bulls three to four weeks before breeding season.
  • Manage nutrition to avoid over- or under-conditioning, which can have a negative impact on a bull’s breeding ability.
  • Be mindful of biosecurity and quarantine new bulls entering your herd, avoid sharing bulls, and be sure bulls are coming from a reputable source.
  • Avoid spreading venereal disease by purchasing virgin bulls and/or testing for diseases such as trichomoniasis. 
black beef bull with red barn in the background

Artificial insemination can be a useful breeding technology. For more information, visit the BCRC’s Artificial Insemination topic page.

One of the most important things producers can do during breeding season is to monitor their cattle for signs of trouble in order to prevent a breeding wreck. Bull lameness or injury, or a less subtle issue such as fever, can be hard to detect, but left unmanaged may devastate reproductive rates.  

Reproductive Record-Keeping and Pregnancy Checking

According to the Western Canadian Cow-Calf Surveillance Network, data from 2014-2017 showed that 50% of herds had less than 6% of cows and 8% of heifers unbred at pregnancy testing. Keeping good records is important to set targets and production goals, understand pregnancy rates in your herd, identify issues and track genetic progress over time.

Producers who have a veterinarian pregnancy check the herd each year are more likely to identify problems when it is still possible to determine a cause and potentially limit future losses. Pregnancy checking also allows producers to strategically manage the open cows in the herd. Input your on-farm pregnancy checking data into the BCRC’s Economics of Pregnancy Testing Beef Cattle Calculator to help determine what options make the most sense.  

mixed beef herd with fenced water source

Have you grappled with high open rates? Read this BCRC post to learn more about how to bounce back from a tough preg-check.

Managing for an effective and efficient breeding cow herd is critical to the short-term and long-term success, profitability and productivity of a cow-calf operation. Mindful management of females as well as breeding bulls will pay off at preg-checking time.

Learn more by visiting the new Breeding Cow Management and Bull Management topic pages on 

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