Beyond Palpation

The app can reveal and illustrate problems in pregnancy distributions, helping clients move more cows into early calving groups. ( Kansas State University )

You provide a great service by diagnosing pregnancy in your clients’ beef herds. But if you stop there, you might miss an opportunity to add considerable value by providing analysis that helps the client improve reproduction and build profitability.

At its most basic level, pregnancy diagnosis identifies cows for culling or rebreeding based on their pregnancy status, and can reveal a significant decline in herd fertility. A deeper dive in to the numbers, however, can illustrate how changes in reproductive management might generate returns far in excess of associated veterinary services.

The Beef Cattle Institute (BCI) at Kansas State University recently released a Pregnancy Analytics app intended to provide veterinarians with the information they need to uncover reproductive problems and devise solutions that put money in producers’ pockets. The app is available for download for Apple or Android devices.

K-State veterinarian Robert Larson, DVM, PhD, who serves as Edgar E. and M. Elizabeth Coleman Chair, Food Animal Production Medicine, says the tool will allow easy chute-side data collection at the time of pregnancy diagnosis – and will immediately turn preg-check data into easy-to-read charts and tables for enhanced work-up of lower than desired breeding success, identification of additional efficiency when overall breed-up is good, and improved communication between veterinarians and cattle producers.

“Veterinarians know that being able to visualize the percentage of a cowherd that became pregnant each 21-days of the breeding season can provide important information,” Larson says. That information can help identify the contributing causes for a lower than desired breed-up by identifying periods of time within the breeding season when breeding success was decreased.

Larson adds that by evaluating the breeding season success for cows grouped by age, body condition, or other description, the veterinarian can identify not only “when” breeding was less successful, but “which types of cows” were less successful. Until now, collecting and evaluating preg-check information while at the chute has been difficult.

The value of calving distribution

Beef cow reproduction is limited by two key factors, Larson says. These are:

  • A relatively long period of infertility following calving.
  • Only 60% to 70% of successful matings between a fertile bull and fertile cow will result in a viable pregnancy at the time pregnancy status is determined at mid-pregnancy.

He explains that approximately 30% to 40% of fertile matings result in either failure of fertilization or death of the early embryo. But in most situations, the cow will express heat and ovulate a fertile egg about 21 days after her last heat and have another 60 to 70% probability of conceiving and maintaining a pregnancy. Fertile cows that have three opportunities to be bred by a fertile bull in a breeding season (each with a 65% probability of a successful pregnancy) will have a 96% probability of being pregnant at the time of a preg-check about one-half way through pregnancy.

“If nearly all the cows in a herd calved early enough so that they have resumed fertile cycles by the start of the next breeding season, and the bulls are fertile and able to successfully mate, then the ideal pregnancy pattern would have about 60% to 65% pregnant in the first 21 days of the breeding season, 85% to 90% pregnant by the 42nd day of breeding, and about 95% pregnant after 63 days of breeding,” Larson says.

In contrast, herds that only have 50% of cows cycling by the end of the first 21-days of the breeding season are expected to have no more than 30 to 35% of the herd become pregnant in the first 21 days, assuming again a 60 to 70% pregnancy success rate from the mating of fertile cows to fertile bulls. The pattern will be flatter and longer than the ideal pregnancy pattern, Larson says.

The magnitude of non-pregnant cows at the end of the breeding season will depend on the length of the breeding season. Larson explains though, that even if the breeding season is limited to 63 days, at least 80% of the cows are expected to be pregnant if the problem is confined to issues of cows resuming fertile estrous cycling during the breeding season. If more than 20% of cows are open at preg-check time, the problem probably involves more than just estrous cycles, with bull fertility and other problems in the cow herd deserving investigation.

Poor pregnancy success due to bull problems can often be detected at the time of preg-check by using the pattern to identify a substantial decrease in the pregnancy success by 21-day periods, Larson says. Previously fertile cows rarely become infertile over a short period of time, but bulls can suddenly become less fertile due to testicular, penis, or leg problems. So any time reproductive efficiency suddenly decreases during a breeding season, bull problems should be considered likely.

How the app works

The only data required by the Pregnancy Analytics App are the dates for the start and end of the breeding season and an estimate of the fetal age for each cow’s pregnancy. Even herds that do not utilize individual cow identification can gain valuable insight into the herd’s reproductive performance by utilizing the App. Additional information such as cow id, cow age, body condition score, and breed (or other descriptor) can be collected to enhance the value of the preg-check information.

After entering preg-check data, the App automatically creates several very helpful graphs that show what percentage of the herd became pregnant each 21-day period of the breeding season, as well as the percent of the cows within each body condition and age category that became pregnant each 21-day period. In addition to evaluating the percentage of the herd that became pregnant each 21-day period, another important calculation is the percent of cows available for breeding that became pregnant each 21-days. As the breeding season progresses, the number of cows within the herd that are open and have the opportunity to become pregnant should steadily decrease as more cows become pregnant, the App provides several tables that display the percentage of cows that are open at the start of each 21-day period that became pregnant during that period.

The graphs and tables that are automatically generated can be emailed to the veterinarian and producer. The complete data set can also be emailed as a spreadsheet file for further analysis on a computer. The spreadsheet includes all the data entered chute-side as well as projected calving dates. Combined with information about: the timing of births in the calving season preceding the breeding season, bull breeding soundness examinations, environmental and forage conditions, and management during the breeding season, the graphs and tables generated by the Pregnancy Analytics App are a powerful diagnostic tool to assist veterinarians improve reproductive efficiency of beef herds.

Each veterinarian can decide whether to share the cow data with BCI or not. No herd identifiers are available to BCI - so even if the preg-check data is shared, neither the veterinarian nor the producer can be identified. If the cow information (% pregnant, % with each body condition, starting date for breeding season, etc.) is shared with BCI, the herd’s data are compared to a benchmark created from all the submitted herds or a benchmark of the herds submitted by that veterinarian or clinic. If you choose not to submit the data to BCI, the App works the same, but there is no benchmark for comparison. “The Beef Cattle Institute greatly appreciates the value of herd-level, anonymous, aggregated data from many herds across the country and we think that this information will generate very valuable teaching and research statistics that we will share with veterinarians and beef producers,” Larson says. “This approach allows us to gather information from a wide variety of production settings rather than relying on data from a few research herds.”

Shan Hullman, DVM, operates South Fork Veterinary Hospital in Pratt, Kan. He has helped pilot-test the app, and used it to collect and analyze data during his latest round of pregnancy testing in client herds. He currently is reviewing the analysis with clients.

Hullman says it is, at this stage, a little early to assess how clients will respond or to fully evaluate the value of the information the app provides. However, he believes the app’s relative ease of use and its narrow focus on reproduction trends will make it a valuable tool. He expects some of the greatest benefits to accumulate over time, as veterinarians and clients collect enough calving information to identify trends, investigate problems and adjust management accordingly. Once several years of data establish a baseline, the app will provide an early warning if pregnancies drop off or if the distribution of calving dates shifts toward the second or third 21-day periods.

Producers also are interested in comparing their results with similar operations in their area, which the app will allow, as Hullman anticipates compiling information from all his client herds to use as a baseline for comparison.

Hullman says entering the data into a phone at chute-side is relatively quick and easy, but notes that veterinarians might vary their approach depending on the process they use at pregnancy checking. In his case, he and his technicians often have their hands full with vaccinating, deworming or other tasks they perform along with palpating. Also, the team manually enters pen-and-paper records at chute-side as a backup to their electronic records. Within that process, his technicians have found it easiest to write the pregnancy data on their paper records, then enter the information into the app later, back at the clinic.

Once a problem turns up, the team can begin to investigate the cause, such as nutrition, disease, whether at breeding time or other issues. In many cases he expects some low-cost adjustments to management could bring significant improvements in reproduction and financial returns to the operation.

How to get clients to use it? Generally, Larson says, producers do not realize they need this information, and might need to see the benefits first-hand. He suggests identifying a few of your top clients and just start using it. Show them the kinds of information the system provides, and apply it toward solving problems they might not know they have, and tightening their calving seasons. One they see those results, you help ensure continued or even expanded business with those clients, and interest from others as you offer the service more broadly.

The Pregnancy Analytics App is available for free download from the Beef Cattle Institute at Kansas State University at: