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Getting cows to breed back quickly

published: July 15th 2019
by: Travis Meteer
source: University of Illinois Extension


Weather events, poor conditions and hay shortages will result in some cows that will need extra attention prior to and during breeding season. After a weather event, it would be salt in the wound to have cows breed late and fall out of your calving season. Monitoring and intervening with some timely supplementation is important and a valuable component to a profitable cowherd through good and bad environmental times.

First, a rough season can help identify the cows that can't hang. Marking cows that are too high maintenance for cull can be a good thing for the future of your cowherd. Weather events likely have identified some members of the herd that need to see the gate. However, if the majority of cows are behind merely due to a hard winter and below average feed supplies… then timely supplementation can help keep these cows from falling back in the season.

The biggest focus should be getting thin cows gaining weight. Cows that are gaining weight breed up at a higher percentage. This is easier said than done considering spring calving cows will be lactating and hay supplies are likely exhausted.

For those producers that will still be feeding harvested feeds during the breeding season, utilizing co-product feeds like corn gluten feed, dried distillers grains, and even just corn can help offer additional energy to forages.

For those producers that will be turned out on pasture at the time of breeding, a dry, low protein supplement should be used to help balance your pasture ration. New pasture growth has challenges. It is washy, high in protein, and low in fiber. To transition cattle successfully to pastures with these hurdles from winter diets, we need to offer a supplement that adds dry matter, energy, and fiber. Adding energy is likely the priority. I advise cattlemen to feed cows a 50:50 mixture of corn grain and soybean hulls when starting cattle on pasture. Feeding 4 to 5 pounds of this mixture can help add energy to the pasture ration. Offering a bale of hay or any palatable dry forage can help but stay away from high protein forages like alfalfa. Getting more dry matter, energy, and fiber in the cow will help her better utilize the lush grass pasture for weight gain.

Now, here are a few reasons to focus on getting cows bred early. First, research has shown that getting a higher percentage of cows to calve within the first 21 days of the calving season results in heavier weaning weights and increased pregnancy rates compared to later calving cows. Heavier calves and more bred cows have been and will be a pretty good combination for making money. Later calving cows are more apt to fall out of your calving season and can ultimately cost you several dollars in replacement costs.

Just one missed cycle can add several dollars to the annual cost to keep a cow. It can also result is loss from weaning weight that could have been realized if the calf was older, on the ground and growing sooner. Table 1 shows figures of the cost per cow that fails to breed in the first 21 days of the breeding season.

Table 1. Cost per cow failing to breed in the first 21 days of the breeding season

Cost, Item



Diet Cost, $/day



Feed Cost, $ per missed cycle



Lower weaning weight, $






Total Cost



¹ Free choice poor quality hay supplemented with CGF, $0.10/d mineral cost

² Pasture Rent=$90/acre, 6 mo. grazing, 2 acre/cow, $0.10/d mineral cost

Diet cost multiplied by 21 days



Assumed calf ADG of 2.5 and multiplied by 21 days, $150/cwt


Researchers from University of Nebraska-Lincoln investigated the effect of calving period on heifer progeny. Results show that heifers of cows calving in the first 21 days of the calving season have lower birth weights, heavier weaning weights, and higher pregnancy rates as bred heifers when compared to heifers born to cows calving later in the calving season. They also were more apt to calve in the first 21 days of the calving season as they entered production, had lighter calves at birth that weaned off heavier, and they bred-back with numerically higher pregnancy rates as first-calf cows.

There is no doubt in my mind that there is a positive snowball effect from focusing on front-loading your calving season and selecting replacements from cows that are calving early in your season. I would not encourage pulling bulls after a 60 day breeding season, because of the premium for bred cows. I would utilize a pregnancy check to identify late-bred cows and then market them before the calving season as bred cows. Just because they don't fit for your operation doesn't mean they don't fit for someone else's. The key is to identify the cows that annually are at the front of your calving season. Select and propagate those genetics to make cows.

Tips for getting cows to breed early in the season

·       Select replacements from cows that calve early in the season

·       Have cows in correct Body Condition Score (ideally 6)

·       Avoid decreasing plane of nutrition at breeding, cows losing weight do not breed up well

·       Invest in a good mineral program, consider injectable mineral products 30 days prior to breeding if mineral status may be compromised

·       Consider synchronization and timed-AI to front-load the calving season

·       Transition cows to lush, spring forage with a dry, low protein supplement

·       Move pre-breeding vaccines to at least 30 days prior to breeding 

·       Limit stress. Use low-stress animal handling when processing cows

·       Avoid transporting of cows between 4 -45 days post breeding

·       Provide adequate shade in breeding pastures

·       Conduct a breeding soundness exam on all bulls prior to turnout



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