The benefits of data collection and analysis in suckler herds
The recording and analysis of data on beef suckler herd performance may take some time, but it does enable the root causes of any production issues to be more easily identified and investigated. It can prove a very worthwhile investment of time and effort.
For a beef suckler herd, the most important overall performance indicator is the number of calves weaned compared to the number of cows served. This effectively summarises most of the other data, and in an ideal world should be over 95%. A figure close to this would suggest a well-run herd, which will probably require very few changes in its management. But anything less and we need to delve deeper........ By having the data, it is easy to see what the problems are, and investigate accordingly.
So record the numbers of cows/heifers that are mated, and then how many prove to be barren or have abortions. Also record the number of calvings and any stillbirths.
On analysing the data, a shortfall in overall herd performance may, for example, prove to be due to a high number of apparently barren cows in a group, which in turn may indicate a problem with bull fertility.
As well as recording the number of calvings, also make a note of those that require assistance, and whether this necessitated veterinary intervention, or a Caesarean. A high incidence of stillbirths and Caesareans/assisted calvings would imply an issue with oversized calves and possible inappropriate bull selection.
Data should also be recorded on aspects of calf health. Record the number of calves born alive, and also those born alive which die before 28 days, those which die between 29 days and weaning, and those which do not make it to breeding.
Similarly, record the number of cases of calf scour that occur, at what age it happens and whether treatment was required, plus any deaths.
Where calves less than a month old are dying then this may suggest a colostrum issue, or poor hygiene if calving inside; where older calves are dying, then there are other issues to consider.
Another benefit that comes from collecting data on a farm is the potential to then benchmark your own herd’s performance by comparing it with the data from other farms (ideally of a similar size and make-up), or to recognised ‘ideal’ figures of production.
However, benchmarking only works if you, the farmer, want to do it, and have the right reasons for doing so. It is an opportunity to pick out potential weaknesses or management issues that may be holding your business back. It should not be seen as a ‘my farm is better than yours’ exercise.
Benchmarking can also be used to pick up issues that may not directly affect the calves born/cows mated figure, but do impact on herd management and longer term performance and profitability.
For example, take calving dates. Ideally, at least 65% of cows should be calving in the first three weeks of a spring or autumn calving block, so as to maximise calf weight at weaning and ensure cows are cycling again in plenty of time for the bulls going back out.
So calculate the start of the calving block (according to when the bulls were first in with the cows) and divide it into three-week periods. Record how many cows/heifers calve down in each time period to determine your calving spread.
By looking at this data, it is possible to identify if the calving spread is too wide, and then to consider what actions are required to tighten it.
The reasons why adult cattle leave the herd can also be useful data to collect and later analyse. So record the number of cattle that die or are culled between weaning and 2 years of age, adult cattle that die of natural causes and those that are culled (and on what basis).
Other aspects of herd health that should be recorded so as to allow retrospective analysis include incidences of lameness, milk fever, mastitis and respiratory disease.
In summary, data analysis is not completely diagnostic of specific problems, but it is a guide to pinpoint the places for investigation. It can be a very valuable tool in the improvement of the overall profitability of a beef suckler herd.