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Preg-checking cattle could unlock profit for producers.

Preg-checking may boost producer's profit

Record high cattle prices. A declining Canadian dollar. Drought across Alberta and Saskatchewan. While these headlines might not grab the attention of veterinarians at first, there are very good reasons for them to pick up a paper. All of these issues have a huge impact on a cow-calf producer's bottom line.

The use of veterinary services depends greatly on health and welfare, but many decisions in food animal medicine – such as when to market cattle – are made from an economic perspective. Understanding the economic trends facing cow-calf producers in Western Canada is essential for large and mixed-animal practitioners.

"Just as the cattle industry is evolving, so too is veterinary practice. Veterinarians servicing the cow-calf industry will increasingly be called upon to consult not only on herd health issues but on economics," says Dr. Murray Jelinski, Alberta Chair in Beef Cattle Health and Production Medicine and a professor in the Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM).

In other words, if veterinarians are not aware of the economics facing producers they may not be marketing their services properly.

Take, for example, a seemingly simple decision – should a producer pregnancy check (or preg-check) their cattle?

While veterinarians may take it for granted that pregnancy testing is essential to cow-calf management, producers may question whether it's worth the cost in the first place.

The standard answer from veterinarians is yes, of course. Many articles in trade magazines have explained just how economically beneficial preg-checking can be. The cost savings from not having to feed an open (non-pregnant) cow over the winter is far greater than the costs for a practitioner to preg-check a cow. From this perspective, veterinarians are correct in thinking that it just makes good management sense.

However, despite decades of information and promotion by veterinarians, a significant segment of producers still resist the practice of preg-checking.

According to the 2015 Western Canadian Cow-Calf Survey, about 40 per cent of the region's producers still do not use preg-checking as part of their management strategy.

Jelinski has set out to discover why.

"For decades, we assumed that these producers have not recognized the value of preg-checking. We wanted to break down the economics of this decision to see if there was another reason," he says.

As part of my joint Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) and Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree at the WCVM, I worked with fellow DVM-MBA student Alex Muzzin and CanFax Research Services to create an economic model that could help determine the cost-benefit of preg-checking for producers in Western Canada.

The tool, which is now available on the Beef Cattle Research Council web site, allows producers to input specific information about their herd and management practices. The model then uses their cost of production and current cattle market price to determine the financial gain of preg-checking for their herd.

The model may also explain why some producers still resist the practice.

It shows that the market price for cull cows is the main factor that determines if preg-checking is economically beneficial for producers.

Remember those newspaper headlines? With increasing cattle prices as we've seen over the last few years, producers can often get higher returns from their non-pregnant cows by holding on to them over the winter rather than culling them in the fall.

However, this doesn't mean that cow-calf producers can't still benefit from preg-checking. With high cattle prices, veterinarians may simply have to change how they market their services.

"This model helps change our mindset, as veterinarians, from simply preg-checking to helping producers identify open cows to save on feed cost. It redefines the issues to identifying open cows for the purpose of optimizing cull cow weight gain and time of slaughter based on market price," says Jelinski.

A new spin on an old question. All the more reason for producers and veterinarians to keep an eye on current affairs.

Elad Ben-Ezra of Montréal, Que., is a fourth-year veterinary student who will graduate this spring with joint Master of Business Administration and Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degrees. He was also part of the WCVM's Undergraduate Summer Research and Leadership program in 2015. Elad's story is part of a series of stories written by WCVM summer research students. 
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