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Published February 24, 2014, 09:21 AM

Make informed decisions for your cattle operation

In making decisions, digging into the technical side with online scientists, doctors or lawyers could send you out to gather more data. You want to be able to ask questions that precisely fit your situation.

By: Steve Suther, Agweek

In making decisions, digging into the technical side with online scientists, doctors or lawyers could send you out to gather more data. You want to be able to ask questions that precisely fit your situation.

Vision leads your ability to observe and record cattle phenotypes, behavior and readouts such as scale weight and other measurements that might need further analysis. You can often calculate a few averages from your records.

Averages are a key tool for decision making, but you have to recognize their limits. When you go back to online resources, you can find lots of benchmark data, what cattlemen and cattle have done over time, on average. Look at the ranges when possible to show what is possible and how far you might fall short.

You will also find several “calculators” that use average pounds, performance, conception rate and costs. Many of these will be out of date because markets and costs have been so volatile, but you should always study all default numbers when using these automated aids.

Your banker knows all about the averages, but it is your track record versus those numbers that determine the fate of approval on a loan. You can often do better, but be realistic and base projections on logic and achievable goals.

Some fields of cattle statistics are interesting, but might not be relevant to you because there are big differences in cattle and producers that are hard to measure in simple models.

Beef specialists and economists have debated whether “preconditioning calves” is a net gain, but that question is best answered for each herd and operator, and it will depend on marketing plans.

Others have noted statistics that say “retained ownership” of calves is a paying proposition most of the time, but that’s another case where the statistic means less than what you actually know about your calves. A single year’s information is not enough to go on, but you can start there and build relationships with cattle feeders.

Balance is the key to creating calves that make profit for everyone, and a Montana rancher recently compared that to a three-legged stool that rests on science, herd performance data and common sense.

Seedstock suppliers, veterinarians and other professionals in the beef industry can join with your feeder and banker as unofficial, but valuable consultants as you build your own track record for more accurate decisions.

The value of cattle that are at the top end for gain and grade ability might be hard to represent with most break-even tools, which rarely offer more than a customized Choice or Select percentage and price spread. Feeding costs are basically the same for all, but the top Choice and Prime cattle earn many more dollars.

Beyond technical points, there’s philosophy and decision-making style that can’t be measured. You know what you stand for. You have motives and biases, memories of unintended consequences, and perhaps a tendency to resist change, especially with dollars on the line.

A recent survey of U.S. commercial cow-calf producers shows 40 percent spend less than $2,500 for bulls. At the top end those who have reached some quality and performance goals sold finished, premium steers and heifers for more than $2,500 per head.

Back at the other end, even though no DNA-marker test is available for less than $15, only 9 percent say they would consider using such a tool if it cost more than that. Have we checked the cattle market lately?

Calf prices in January were up $150 per head over 2013, and that’s just an average to show why bull prices are higher this winter and spring. Those who improve genetics by keeping replacements and finishing their other calves can easily justify spending two or three times what has become salvage value.

What would a bull be worth that could significantly improve your herd?

Editor’s note: Suther is the director of industry information for Certified Angus Beef LLC.

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