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'Cattle Heaven' greets cattlemen in Florida

Several thousand beef producers are gathering in Tampa, Florida, this week for the annual Cattle Industry Convention and NCBA Trade Show. While drought and high feed prices are high on their minds, they’re finding plenty to celebrate, too, with record high cattle prices for the third year in a row.

This convention doesn’t come to Florida often -- it’s in Nashville, San Antonio and Denver more often. But cattlemen are really warming up to Tampa this week, with 80 degree temperatures and plenty of green grass. Florida is one of the few places in the country that has largely been spared the drought.

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Here are some of the highlights from Cattle Convention activities on Wednesday.

Reproductive tips. At the Cattlemen’s College seminar, one of the learning tracks involved cow breeding performance. University of Missouri reproductive expert Mike Smith reminded producers that cow breeding performance is still the biggest factor in herd success or failure. If a high percentage of cows don’t breed and wean a calf, there’s nothing you can do to make up for it. One of the big problems is late-calving cows, those that fall out of the first 60-70 days of a calving season. As they fall farther behind from one year to the next, they become a bigger and bigger drain on the herd. “Have a goal of a bigger percentage of early-calving cows,” says Smith, “within the first 20 days of the start of the calving season. “One day to do this is with estrus synchronization and timed artificial insemination to get more pregnancies on day 1 of the breeding season.” And, he says, begin breeding heifers 2-3 weeks before cows, to give them a better chance of becoming early-calvers throughout their lifetimes.

Using technology. A panel of beef producers told a packed meeting room how they use newer technology to enhance their herds. Mark Gardiner, a large Angus breeder from western Kansas, explained that he and his wife, a veterinarian, have learned to use ultrasound technology to do early pregnancy checks (about 55 days after breeding) and also determine the sex of the calf at that time. “There’s a small window from day 55 to about day 100 when you can see the sex of the calf on the ultrasound image,” says Gardiner. “After that, the calf moves below the pelvic bone and you can’t see it.” The ultrasound machine also lets their herd know early if a cow is not pregnant, and move her. “The ultrasound was an expensive investment, and it paid for itself in the first month of use,” says Gardiner.

Verify parentage. Jack Holden of Holden Herefords in Montana explained how he uses DNA testing on his ranch to verify the parentage of every bull they sell. He cites estimates that at least 5% of pedigreed animals are not from the bull the owner thinks, due to errors at the time of artificial insemination, or undetected bull issues in breeding pastures. Holden also makes use of sexed bull semen to get more top-end heifers born into their herd to make faster genetic progress in the cow herd. Iowa seedstock producer Dave Nichols echoes Holden’s comments about the value of DNA tests on cattle. “DNA testing will allow us to select cattle for better feed efficiency without the high price of individual feeding trials,” he says.  “We won’t have to wait six years to learn about a particular bull, we can actually make a generation of progress in one year.” Nichols reminds producers that progress is already happening: it used to take 4 acres in Iowa to maintain a cow-calf pair and wean a 528-pound calf; now it takes 1.8 acres to wean a 700-pound calf.

Cattle Money Ball. Don Sheifelbein, Kimball, Minnesota, family beef operation, tells farmers here in Tampa to stop using the term “low-cost producer.” “The real goal is to increase the revenue on a farm, to become a high-income producer,” he says. “We have a saying at our place that ignorance purchases on price, knowledge purchases on value. We’re willing to invest some money to make money.”

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He told farmers to read the book Money Ball, about a baseball team that only invested in undervalued, high-performance players. “There’s much we in agriculture can learn from that,” Sheifelbein says. He gave an example from their farm. The biggest cost in a cowherd is feed. You can go the cheap route and feed traditional cut, dried, and baled hay. But, that system typically leads to 20% or more waste and loss. So, they converted a few years ago to full plastic wrap baleage. The equipment isn’t cheap, but where they used to buy some hay every year to feed cows, since they went to plastic wrap they’ve been able to add 20% more cows on the same land base. “Money Ball - spend money to make money,” he says.

Is this cattle heaven? Lest you think Florida an odd place for a cattle convention, Florida commissioner of agriculture Adam Putnam reminds beef producers that Florida is much more than beaches, Disneyworld, and baseball spring training. One-fifth of Florida is in pasture land, he says. Florida is the number 10 cattle state in numbers. “But more than that, Florida is the birthplace of the North American cattle industry,” he says. “The first cattle here can with the Spanish explorers 500 years ago.” And today, the largest single cattle ranch in the U.S. is near Florida’s east coast. The Deseret Ranch, owned by the Mormon Church, is 330,000 acres near Deer Park, Florida, and has about 45,000 cows, mostly Angus-Brahma crosses.

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