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Results of recent Cow-Calf Production Surveys across Canada

Industry data provided by production surveys can serve as a benchmark for production performance across the country. Historical production surveys include the Alberta Cow-Calf Audit (1986-88, 1997-1998) and “Reproductive Efficiency and Calf survival in Ontario Beef Cow-calf Herds” (1983). Sixteen years later, the survey was revived, revised and expanded into the Western Canadian Cow-Calf Survey (WCCCS, 2014). In the last two production years, additional surveys have occurred across Canada (Western Canada, Ontario, Northern Quebec, Atlantic). These have provided an overall picture of current production and management practices on beef cow-calf operations in each region of the country for the first time. The objective of these surveys were multi-faceted.

Canadian Cow-Calf Surveys

First, to establish industry benchmarks for production indicators and management practices. Herd productivity is closely linked to herd profitability. The break-even price for calves can be lowered by decreasing total cow herd costs or by increasing the total pounds of calves weaned. Increasing the total weight (lbs) of weaned calves can be achieved by improving herd productivity, such as:

  1. a) INCREASING – conception rates, weaning rate, etc.
  2. b) DECREASING – calf death loss, calving span, etc.

While it is good management to track and calculate one’s herd production performance indicators on an annual basis, it can be helpful to have benchmarks to compare to. Benchmarks help a producer know if they are on the right track for their region and the environment they operate in. They can help a producer identify if they excel in a certain area and/or could improve in another. Benchmarks can also help to show what production and management practices other producers are following.

Benchmarks help a producer know if they are on the right track for their region and the environment they operate in.

Second, to establish industry trends. The longer history of cow-calf surveys in Alberta show how producer adoption for different practices has changed (or didn’t change) over time. Regional expansion plans in the Maritimes and Northern Ontario and Quebec have spurred an interest in monitoring trends in those areas as they focus on improving profitability and growing inventories.

Third, to guide research and extension efforts. Information around death loss rates and causes can inform research efforts into specific diseases. It can also highlight areas where extension and communication about existing tools and information to producers, based on research that has already been done, could benefit cow-calf operations.


When reading the results, it should be remembered that differences between regions does not necessarily mean that producers need to jump at a new practice because environmental conditions and production systems influence whether a practice makes sense in one situation and not in another. In addition, there were differences between how questions were asked and therefore results are not always comparable between surveys, not only between regions, but within regions historically.


Pregnancy detection is a recommended practice that allows producers to make management decisions (e.g. utilization of winter feed) and marketing decisions based on the reproductive status of their herd.Over the past thirty years, it appears that there is an upward trend in producers adopting pregnancy checking. In 1997/98 the Alberta cow-calf audit reported that 49% of producers preg-checked their herd. This increased to 60% preg-checking some or all their cows and 66% preg-checking heifers in 2014 (WCCCS) and that has increased to 62% always checking cows and 71% checking heifers in 2017 (WCCCS II). Rogers et al (1985) reported that 12% of Ontario producers preg-checked in 1983 and this increased to 66% of producers preg-checking cows and 64% checking heifers in 2015/16.There still remains an opportunity for even greater uptake, with existing data demonstrating that approximately one-third of producers in western Canada and half of the producers in Atlantic Canada have yet to regularly adopt this practice on their farms.

Percent of farms that pregnancy checked females

Sources: ACC, 2018; OCC, 2018; 

WCCCS II, 2018 (includes “almost always” responses) WCCCS II respondents that indicated they rarely or never pregnancy check most commonly provided reasons such as preferring to sell open cows when prices are higher; can “tell” which females are open; and the financial benefit doesn’t outweigh the cost. Other barriers to adoption that were reported to a lesser extent included being busy with other farming activities, a lack of labour and a lack of facilities.

Pain Mitigation for Dehorning

Recent advances in pain mitigation have provided producers with opportunities to use products that were unavailable in the past. Using pain mitigation, such as NSAIDs, and/or anesthetics, during painful procedures is a recommended practice. Uptake of pain mitigation has increased in western Canada from 9% as reported in WCCCS in 2014 to 45% in 2017. Across Canada, current uptake is hovering around 50%.There is an opportunity for extension efforts to target the remaining 49-55% of producers across regions who are dehorning calves without using pain medication. The type of pain control used varies by region, with the use of painkillers (ex. NSAIDs) only being the most common in western Canada (85%) while Ontario has more variation with 41% using a local anesthetic plus painkiller (ex. Meloxicam), 35% local anesthetic/nerve block only, 17% painkiller only, and 7% other.

Proportion of producers mitigating pain during dehorning

Sources: ACC, 2018; OCC, 2018; WCCCS, 2018


Only 2.4% of Ontario survey respondents implanted their 2016 calves, this is significantly lower than Western Canada at 26.5% (WCCCS, 2017 Producers who did report using implants indicated they used them before weaning and/or at weaning. Of Western Canada respondents who used implants, they favoured implanting non-replacements over implanting all calves. Interestingly, of WCCCS II respondents that did not implant, the main reason they cited was they were philosophically opposed to the technology, making this option nearly as popular as producers that chose to implant calves.


Low-stress weaning practices (two-stage and fenceline) increased in western Canada between 2014 and 2017. All other regions had traditional separation rates that were lower than the WCCCS, 2014 levels.

Weaning method according to region

Sources: ACC, 2018; OCC, 2018; WCCCS, 2014; WCCCS, 2017; Lamothe, 2016.

Vaccination and Parasite Control

Vaccinating breeding females for reproductive disease and vaccinating calves for respiratory disease are recommended practices. Vaccination requirements vary by region and by farm as production and management practices can increase or decrease the amount of risk cattle are exposed to.

General herd vaccination levels

Sources: Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, 1997-98; ACC, 2017; OCC, 2017; WCCCS, 2014; WCCCS II, 2017; Lamothe, 2018

Managing for external parasites is relatively stable across Canada (84-91%) and varies by animal types (73-91%). Internal parasites management is lower (63-82%) across regions and again varies by animal type (63-74%).

Future Surveys

Ideally these cow-calf surveys would be updated every five years. In order for all the regional surveys occur in the same production year (for comparability), they would need to target data collection on the 2022 calf crop. Some regional surveys may occur more frequently. For example, with the implementation of the programs outlined in the Maritime Beef Sector Development and Expansion Strategy, it is intended that the Atlantic survey will be repeated on a bi-annual basis as a means to measure the impact of the strategy on the local beef industry.

For more information on each region’s survey results, visit our new page: Production Practices on Cow-Calf Operations.

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