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How to Rebound from High Open Rates🎙️

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High cattle open rates recorded in areas across Western Canada last year mean affected beef producers should be setting up their herds for success now. 

A report from the Western Canadian Animal Health Network (WeCAHN) said that open rates were “all over the map” – from 2 to 3 percent up to 40+ percent in the third quarter of 2023. The averages were a bit higher at 10 to 12 percent versus 8 to 10 percent in 2022.   

black and red cows on green pasture

The Problem

Experts agree it’s a multi-year, multi-factor problem. Drought, early snow and other adverse weather conditions have resulted in poor forage quality and compromised water quality in many regions. The results have manifested in lower calving distribution rates.  

“Herds with cows that have good body condition have an open rate of about 5 to 8 percent, and I’ve been hearing stories about herds with poorer body conditions that are as high as 50 percent,” says Barry Yaremcio, a Camrose, Alberta, based independent consulting nutritionist with decades of experience.

Dr. Jason McGillivray says that, in the Kamloops, British Columbia area, the problems started in the 2021-22 winter when there was lower feed quality followed by a dry spring. 

“During the pregnancy checks of the fall of 2021, we noticed that more cows were going to be calving later, and the following year, more of those cows were calving later still,” Dr. McGillivray says. 

In that area, November 2023 brought a big snowstorm, which disrupted ranchers’ extended grazing programs, which normally would go into January.  

maintain cow body condition year-round for best productivity

A body condition score of 3.0 is ideal, and the Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC) has resources about scoring including a calculator producers can use to understand how body condition impacts the profitability of their herds at BodyConditionScoring.ca.  

“In some of the herds, they had to feed earlier with lower quality hay, and those cows were in poor body condition,” he says. The multiple punches of later calving and an early winter followed by drought meant that open rates were up.  

In his area, Dr. McGillivray said another contributing factor in some herds was wolf predation through the breeding and grazing season, which put cows under tremendous stress. 

In Brooks, Taber and Lethbridge, Alberta, Dr. Blake Balog says data from his practice indicated that, on average, open rates were about 12 percent for cows and 14 percent for heifers.  

“In that mix, we had some pretty high highs and pretty low lows,” he says, adding that shorter breeding seasons had up to 90 percent bred and, on the other end, some groups went to 20 percent open.  

“The trend in calving distributions is flatter and flatter,” he says. “Cows may have had good reproductive momentum for a while, but when they go more and more into that second and third cycle, eventually, they just fall off the map.”  

In the southeast area of Manitoba, Dr. Kurtis Swirsky says his clients have experienced similar situations, with some chronically affected herds that run higher open rates and some that have lower rates. In 2023, there was an anomaly.   

mixed beef cattle on grass with a fenced water source

“The common factor with the high open rates was nutrition and water quality,” Dr. Balog says, noting poor-quality forage. He agrees that the three to four years of dry weather contributed to the results.  

“This past May was one of the hottest on record and the flies were a big contributing factor to having cows being run down, less likely to cycle and then to get pregnant when they were bred,” Dr. Swirsky says. Generally, producers who pay close attention to body condition and cows have healthier, more resilient cows that have excellent pregnancy rates. Sometimes, bulls are infertile or injured, but mostly it’s about the health of the cows, he says. According to Yaremcio, extreme heat can also affect the bulls’ sperm motility.  

“One of the big things this year compared to previous years was that there was a lot of grass, but the energy density was lower,” Dr. Swirsky says, adding that supplementing cattle on pasture prior to turning the bulls out is also an option.  

The Solutions

Keeping a close eye on body condition scores and improving nutrition and water quality are some of the best ways to decrease open rates in cows.  

Both Dr. Swirsky and Dr. McGillivray point out that making sure the cows have good body condition before being put out on grass is important, even if it costs more in feed. 

fit cows get pregnant faster

“The benefits are great – not only will the cows be more likely to get pregnant, they’ll milk better and have heavier calves,” Dr. Swirsky says.  

“If you turn your cows out thin you are relying on Mother Nature to supply enough good quality forage to get cows to rebound condition to start cycling and breed,” Dr. McGillivray says. “With the last couple of late, cool, dry springs there has not been enough good forage or time to accomplish this at a desirable first cycle conception rate or overall pregnancy rate.” 

Multiple studies have shown earlier bred cows produce calves that are born earlier, are more uniform and healthier and command better prices. The cows themselves are healthier, more productive and live longer. In fact, the BCRC has a video and a Calving Distribution Calculator to help producers determine optimal strategies for their herds.  

The industry target is a minimum of 60 percent of females calving within the first cycle. Yaremcio says some of his clients aim for 75 percent or more.  

For practical purposes, producers need to balance any increase in revenue with the cost of achieving that outcome. Some of those costs could be: 

  • Pre-partum nutrition management to reach the desired body condition score 
  • An increased risk of open cows 
  • Time, labour and facility if estrus synchronization or artificial insemination is used 

The cost of implementing any of these options will vary based on how the operation is set up.  

Dr. Balog says the careful genetic selection of cattle to match changing environmental conditions, managing stocking densities and better managing grass will go a long way to helping alleviate problems.  

“I’m worried that if producers see good calf prices, they’re going to want to retain more animals to cash in on the other side – but we may not have grass to accomplish that,” he says, adding that his more successful clients have aggressive culling strategies to weed out later calving cows and improve herd quality. Early weaning and better nutritional supplementation for the cows also shows up in improved results.  

“In the last few years, improving water quality with structures has been important, too, along with better grazing strategies,” he says.  

Body condition management during the winter and alternative grazing strategies including techniques like stubble grazing and cover crops would also help increase feeding options and reduce open rates. 

In British Columbia, where Dr. McGillivray practices, the feed options are limited to hay, which is costly – and when it went from $200 to $380 a tonne, some producers limited feeding to save costs. 

“Paying $380 a tonne for hay is better than having 20 percent open cows,” he says of the attitude many of his clients took.  

clean water makes for heavier calves

Use the BCRC’s Economics of Water Systems Calculator to compare the costs and benefits of installing different watering systems.

Yaremcio also says when you work with the cattle every day it is difficult to recognize changes in condition. Having a second set of eyes on cattle can help evaluate body condition. It can be an extension agent, nutritionist, veterinarian, feed salesman or even a neighbour who comes in for a cup of coffee. 

Hands-on body condition scoring is even more accurate, especially for evaluating the cows’ fat stores, and the BCRC has resources to help beef producers with that. 

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