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Don't leave success of your herd to luck

What kind of luck did you have with your calves this year? "We had a lot of sickness, they didn't gain well, the market went against me, and we could hardly get a bid." Bad luck?

"We smoked 'em - no sickness, 3.8-pound daily gain, 5-pound feed conversion and 95 percent Choice or better at the end of the road." Good luck?

Luck is for rabbits. Don't let it influence your cattle business. The whole point of being in this business is to make money. With the tools available today, there's no sense in leaving it up to luck.

Analyze what is going well and what isn't. Take specific action to shore up the problem areas, and start gathering more information for further improvement.

Ask your veterinarian, past buyers and cattle feeders about a preweaning health program. Do you have calves identified and matched to cows? In a small herd, you can still get that information when you observe the pairings after preweaning shots. If that's not practical for your herd size, take stock of what must be done to get that information next year.

Record what vaccines you give by location, product, batch number and date. Weigh calves individually unless they're all going to a feedyard that will do so. Most people still use paper and pencil in the field, although wireless data transfer to a computer in the truck cab is available and will become more common over the next few years.

Why would anyone want that, except to show off? After a few years of collecting individual data and having it accumulate in paper notebooks, many producers are looking for ways to add meaning. No matter how tightly you squeeze that book on the shelf, the numbers won't crunch themselves.

If you know your way around a computer but don't have herd management or accounting software, what's stopping you? Those programs are affordable, but if you don't yet have them, you could at least enter individual calving dates, weaning weights and sire information in a basic spreadsheet that will allow ranking.

If you don't know your way around a computer, what's stopping you? Ask your seedstock supplier or Extension agent about services available to convert your paper numbers into digital data for analysis and conversion to information you can use to make money. Some of these services cost as little as $2 per head.

Marketing time can be a disappointment if you don't have what buyers want, or you get taken advantage of. A negative experience here can bring bitter feelings and a vow to take those calves somewhere else next year. A better plan would be to find out what went wrong and make sure you don't have the same problems next year.

Ranking calving dates and weaning weights should help your eye decide if you need to tighten these up for uniformity, and point out a bottom end of cow productivity for culling. You can rank progeny groups for sire culling and replacement heifer selection criteria. Remember as you plan to build uniformity into your herd, known sires with registration numbers will make genetic fine-tuning possible.

One of the most exciting opportunities opening up to cow-calf producers is individual feedlot and carcass performance data. From local auction markets to cooperating feedlots and their buyers, more and more producers are retaining a share of ownership or selling calves with data strings attached. Access to individual data has become a negotiating point in the marketplace.

As with on-farm production records, the trick is to go beyond the paper printout on these data, too. Further analysis that turns data into information is usually part of the service you paid for or negotiated your price on - make sure it is.

Feedlot and carcass data are exciting and new features in management, but that doesn't mean the resulting information should control your other ranch production records. An often-noted rule of thumb has reproductive efficiency twice as important to the cow-calf producer's bottom line as either feedlot performance or carcass traits.

Discuss your results with the trusted advisors who make up your complete resource management team - veterinarian, banker, feeder, etc. If you have fewer than 200 head of cattle, look for progressive-minded neighbors with whom to join forces in a local self-directed alliance.

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