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Every year the Hereford bulls at Timberline Ranch go through a breeding soundness exam prior to turnout. So when Kenneth Allen started to look for reasons conception rates on his Brahman cows were hitting between 70% and 75%, the last place he expected to find a problem was in the bull pen.
"I was raised with Brahman cattle and that conception rate was just too low for me," said Allen, who has been ranch manager at Timberline since 1990.
The picturesque, rolling ranch is based in Tyler County, Texas, just outside of Woodville. It's home to about 400 gray Brahman cows, and carries both a fall- and a spring-calving herd. The focus here is primarily on raising F1 Braford replacement heifers. Every open cow is a market opportunity lost and the need to improve conception rates was at the top of Allen's list. He initially thought the problem had to be the cows.
Mark Currie, Polk County Extension agent, has a long friendship and working relationship with Allen. He encouraged the rancher to participate in the state's Beef PEP program, hoping they could quickly find some solid answers to the herd's conception issues.
Beef PEP (Partnership in Extension Program) is a one-on-one program, bringing together ranchers with an elite team of specialists from the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service. Herds are chosen for the program and each herd manager or owner commits to three years of working with the Beef PEP team. Experts are from the areas of forage, economics and animal health.
Currie said they found nothing on the cow side in the Timberline herd that would explain the low conception rates. So they went back to the bulls to examine the thoroughness of past breeding soundness exams.
"What we found was the exams were looking at the motility of the sperm but not the morphology," he says. "There was movement, but some of the bulls failed the morphology part of the exam. They weren't necessarily infertile, but they were definitely sub-fertile."
Poor sperm morphology refers to cells that are considered abnormal, in terms of shape and size. As the percentage of the abnormal population increases, fertility may decrease. The other common term used in determining bull fertility is "motility," which refers to movement of the sperm.
TIME TO CULL
Out of 18 bulls, 6 were culled from Timberline's herd in 2010 and replaced with bulls that passed the fertility test. As a result, in just one year, conception rates were up 11% and herd value increased an estimated $30,000. That figure was calculated by Stan Bevers, the AgriLife Extension economist who runs all the data from Beef PEP herds through a Standardized Performance Analysis tool. This economic program generates specific numbers that show a producer how much each cow in the herd generates in sales and profits.
An 11% increase in conception rates in one year was a good start, said Allen. But he wants to see those numbers go even higher.
He's increased his vigilance on Body Condition Scores and breedback on the cow side. Working with Currie and the rest of the PEP team, Allen is tracking BCS data every time a cow goes through the chute.
"Conception rates have a direct impact on the bottom line," he said. "So we want to know the body condition on all our cows year round, not just at time of breeding. Every time we work them, we take a score and record it. We like to see them all around a six, year round."