The early bird gets the worm, we often hear. And in agriculture, the early adopter often gets the returns. These days, the rapid emergence of new technology for agricultural production can intimidate producers and professionals alike. Many of these technologies though, also offer genuine improvements to production and the farmer or rancher’s bottom line.
That’s not to say producers or their advisors should embrace every gimmick that comes along. Some won’t pay off and others warrant, at best, a wait-and-see approach. The decision process is not easy, and that’s where veterinarians can offer valuable service to their clients, says Joe Dedrickson, DVM, PhD, director of veterinary technical services for Merial.
Dedrickson says that over his years in the livestock business, which began with a 4-H heifer in elementary school, he has observed that producers who strategically adopt new technologies or practices tend to be the most consistently profitable. He notes though, that these new products and services come at a cost and need to be evaluated for their potential to improve returns. In the crop world for example, previous generations of farmers could not have imagined the price of today’s new tractors. But, modern farmers are able to calculate returns based on the efficiency, labor savings and precision these machines provide. "It is important in today competitive environment,” he says, “with escalating operating costs that commodity operations, such as cow-calf producers, adapt new technology to stay efficient and compete in the world market.”
In beef and dairy production, producers over the past few decades have realized the benefits of products such as improved vaccines, growth promotants, more effective and longer-acting antimicrobials and the emergence of information technologies allowing collection, analysis and application of data toward continuous improvement in herd productivity and end-product value.
More recently, emergence of genomic testing for performance and health traits, behavior monitoring, advanced reproductive technologies, faster and more precise diagnostics and more effective animal-health products add to the opportunities for production improvements. Dedrickson says veterinarians, through their training, experience and continuing education have the ability to evaluate these innovations and work with their clients in deciding which to adopt.
He also adds that in today’s production environment featuring historically high cattle values and input costs, producers need to capitalize on opportunities to improve production efficiency, as higher breakeven levels can increase the value of even small improvements. He cites a 2008 report from Iowa State University economist John Lawrence, PhD, that calculated the economic value of pharmaceutical technologies including growth-promotion implants, parasite control, ionophores and fly control in beef cattle. The study also tracked the change in the value of those applications as production costs and breakeven levels increased between 2005 and 2007.
According to the report, the breakeven price for cow-herds increased from $125 per hundredweight in 2005 to $151 per hundredweight in 2007, and production cost per head increased from $483 to $582 while calf prices declined from $126 per hundredweight to $117. During the same period, the value of growth-promoting implants in calves increased from $28 to 34 per head, the value of using dewormers increased from $166 to $201 per head and the value of fly control increased from $15 to $18 per head.
The total value of those three technologies in cow-calf production in 2007 was $274 per head. Of the pharmaceutical technologies covered in the Lawrence study, all provided economic benefits with deworming showing the largest advantage of $260 per head across cow-calf, stocker and feedyard production.
Since then, cattle prices have increased significantly and we’ve seen advances in the efficacy of parasite control, making it even more cost effective. Today, with calf and feeder prices running at record-high levels, every extra pound of gain is worth $2.30 or more at weaning and more than $1.80 at the stocker phase. Dedrickson points out that his company’s newest parasite-control product, LongRange (eprinomectin), which uses “Theraphase” technology to protect range cattle from worms for up to 150 days, has improved sale weights at weaning by 25 to 60 pounds and at the stocker phase by 25 to nearly 100 pounds in controlled trials compared with conventional dewormers. The product requires a veterinarian prescription, and thus provides the veterinarian an opportunity to help design a client’s parasite-control program.
Overall, Dedrickson encourages veterinarians to help clients evaluate their entire production systems, looking for areas where efficiencies could be gained. Once they have identified areas for potential improvement, they can determine which tools could help them cost-effectively achieve production goals.