Early pregnancy diagnosis can be a productive management and marketing tool in cattle operations. By selecting a pregnancy diagnosis that is economically suitable for the operation, producers can plan accordingly to market seasonality and improve profitability.

The University of Nebraska put together a July 2013 webinar that discussed the use of palpation, ultrasound and blood testing.

Aaron Berger, University of Nebraska – Lincoln extension educator, compares the three methods of pregnancy testing based on effectiveness and economics. He also discussed the advantages of early diagnosis and how to apply those techniques.

figure1 cattle pregnancy check practices

  • Palpation – the most traditional method – when performed by a skilled technician, can identify pregnancy as early as 35 days. Although the results are known immediately it is important producers have the cattle rechecked to avoid any unnecessary losses in production. The cost of this method can be less than other methods depending on the amount of cows. However, the risk of abortion is a disadvantage.
  • Ultrasound – pregnancy can be detected by an ultrasound technician within 28 days. The cows can be sorted depending on the age of the fetus. The technician can determine the sex of the calves and identify twins which can provide the producer with time and knowledge to manage those cows differently. This method is also less invasive than palpation and the results are given immediately. Although, the cost of the ultrasound is greater and an available technician with the right equipment must be in the area.
  • Blood testing – the least expensive and invasive method. The producers in this case can take the blood samples themselves within 30 days of pregnancy and send the sample to be tested. It is 99 percent accurate on identifying open cows and 95 percent accurate determining pregnant cows. This test depends on the age of the fetus to determine if the cow is pregnant. It does not give information regarding the sex of the fetus. It requires more time and doesn’t allow for quick management like the previous methods.

Berger indicated the best method to use is the best one for the cattle operation. Based on what resources are available, producers can look at using one method or a combination of methods to fit their management plan (See Figure 1). It is important to recognize the availability and experience of the technicians and whether or not the producer feels comfortable with them, he said.

“Really it comes down to economics, in terms of which method is going to provide you with the greatest return to your dollar invested with that information,” Berger said.


A combination of these methods could result in the most cost- and time-effective management plan. Berger explained a traditional 60-day breeding season where the bulls were taken from the cows and 30 days later the cows were pregnancy tested. In this situation the cows could be anywhere from 60 to 90 days pregnant, and there could also be a segment of cows that are anywhere from 30 to 60 days pregnant.

Palpation would easily identify those cows that are 60 to 90 days pregnant; however, this method may not diagnose pregnancy in some of those 30 to 60 day pregnant cows. Berger recommended in this situation producers should consider using blood testing to ensure open cows are indeed open before making any selling decisions.

Another strategy producers may want to implement is using one method for cows and one method for heifers for marketing purposes. This is a good option for producers because they can make separate marketing decisions from cows and heifers.

Berger stresses the importance of early diagnosis, especially in heifers, based on market seasonality. By testing heifers early producers can sell the open heifers as feeder calves. The earlier these heifers can be tested is an advantage since they don’t have a calf at their side, which in return will save money and resources. Blood testing would be the best method to use in this situation since it is early on.

Since cows typically have a calf at their side, a method like palpation would be used if the producer doesn’t want to early wean. They can test those cows prior to taking them to corn stalks, add weight to them and sell those open cows after the first of the year.

figure2 cull cow price trends

Historically, cull cow prices reach their peak during the late May, early June time period and drop slightly in late June through August (see Figure 2). By implementing early pregnancy diagnosis into a cattle operation, producers can sell those open heifers and cows based on markets that have been historically higher.

This early diagnosis strategy allows producers to save on feed costs. Anything that allows a reduction in feed cost, Berger said, will be to the producer’s advantage. The cows can also be sorted based on expected calving time. Producers can then think about marketing those late calving cows, which might fit someone else’s calving season.

Producers can use early pregnancy testing as a tool to sort and market cattle to their highest value. With this information, producers can strategically manage cows based on inputs. By carefully choosing a method or a combination of methods, producers can optimize their cattle operation.  end mark