Open cow rates sky high

Some cattle producers in the Interlake will have their calf crop cut by a quarter next year thanks to poor nutrition earlier this season

Cattle vets are seeing their fears on fertility realized as more and more pregnancy checks come back open.

Dr. Keri Hudson Reykdal, of Ashern, has noted alarmingly consistent open rates between 20 and 30 per cent, four to six times what she would expect in a normal year. Hudson Reykdal estimates a normal open rate for the area might hover around five per cent.

“It’s been a big issue, for sure — some herds worse than others… it’s pretty ugly,” she said.

Why it matters: Ranchers likely planned to cull open cows first to stretch winter feed. Unfortunately, it looks like there will be plenty to choose from.

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It is yet another legacy of Manitoba’s second year of drought-like conditions. Forage yields once again dropped well below half of normal in some areas, leaving feed supplies critically low. Pastures have also been hard hit after yet another year of hard grazing, provincial feed experts have warned.

The looming feed shortage caused 16 municipalities in the Interlake and Parkland to announce a state of agricultural disaster and sparked continued calls for government aid. At the late-November meeting of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities, impacted municipalities suggested culls might easily reach 20 per cent of herds in the area.

Reproductive misses have added yet another hit, although not an unexpected one. According to the Beef Cattle Research Council, a cow that drops one point from a body condition score of three takes over a month longer between calving and first heat, faces a 14 per cent lower conception rate, produces lower-quality colostrum, and is at higher risk for both abortion and stillbirth.

Vets and livestock specialists raised the alarm on conception rates as early as spring 2019. In July, Dr. Nathan Erickson of the Western College of Veterinary Medicine told the Manitoba Co-operator he was, “kind of living in fear,” of the fall. He warned that the entire herd might conceive later, extending the calving season. At the same time, producers were warned to review herd nutrition, even in the belly of the grazing season, or risk a reproductive wreck.

The problem has hit even worse than many producers expected, Hudson Reykdal said. Cows already at risk for poor conception, such as “second calvers” and old cows, have felt the brunt, she added, particularly if those cattle are in poor body condition.

“Any time you’re potentially losing 25 per cent of your calf crop in one year, that’s a big hit, because you’re not just losing those calves,” she said.

Many of those open cows are now bound for market, creating a double hit for the farm’s reproductive gains next year, she noted.

Auction marts in Manitoba have seen an influx of cattle as producers cull heavily. Heartland Livestock Services in Brandon reported sales over 4,000 head in November, while the smaller Ashern Auction Mart peaked at over 3,300 head in the start of that month and was still reporting sales up to 2,900 as of the start of December.

The bred cow cull, however, may have yet to really start, according to Art Jonasson, reeve for the Municipality of West-Interlake. Jonasson’s area is among those serviced by Hudson Reykdal and has also announced a state of agricultural disaster.

“People haven’t really sold their cows yet that they’re going to cull,” he said. “It just makes their cull list easier to figure out.”

Those cows are hitting the market as preg-checking results come back, he said.

Other regions dodge

The reproductive wrecks taper off in less impacted areas.

Dr. Tanya Anderson of the Gladstone Veterinary Clinic says she has only noted a one to two per cent jump in open rates this year.

She is, however, unsurprised that rates have skyrocketed in the Interlake.

“I had the opportunity to drive through that area in May and then in the fall; pasture conditions were horrendous,” she said. “In my neck of the woods, many of my clients also crop land and were able to plan their crops to allow utilization for greenfeed, silaging, etc. Dramatic feed shortages were not common, though many have little or no carry-over reserve.”

Producers in her more grain-heavy region also partnered with neighbours to fill their feed gaps, she noted.

Pre-pregnancy culls may have also muted open rates. Producers in Anderson’s area proactively culled old cows or those with health issues like arthritis or poor udder configuration. Those cattle may have brought open rates up had they still been on farm, she suggested.

She has seen three herds with wrecks this year, although Anderson noted that a certain number of wrecks occur every year, regardless of growing conditions. Of this year’s incidents, two were traced back to an issue with the bull, while the third was linked to insufficient mineral or nutrition.

“It is important to note that, that herd had brought in cattle from another geographical area and had bought from two other local-sourced herds, so likely changes in management/grass conditions would have been a factor. Forage availability over the summer was not thought to have been a concern in this instance,” she said.

Farms with a high priority on nutrition have also largely dodged the issue, Hudson Reykdal said.

“Even though it’s been drier conditions, they’ve known that and they’ve done something about it by feeding extra or keeping the animals in, but anybody who just has their cows out on pasture in the Interlake, it’s a problem,” she said.

Farmers can only hope now that 2019’s wet fall heralds a break in the two-year dry spell. It will be a bleak time in the Interlake if the region gets another year like this one, Hudson Reykdal said.

“Unless we start irrigating,” she noted. “B.C. and some places irrigate, but that drives up cost significantly and I don’t know that that’s ever feasible here.”

About the author

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Alexis Stockford

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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