Davis adheres to a 45-day window for breeding his 300-head cowherd using synchronization and timed A.I., followed by clean-up bulls turned out with the cows for two heat cycles.
Whichever cows are not bred at the end of that time period are culled – no exceptions.
Davis and his wife, Cindy, call their operation the Heart Tail Ranch. Located on the rolling prairies along the western South Dakota border, Chance’s granddad homesteaded nearby in 1901, and the Davises now operate the ranch Chance grew up on.
Their cowherd has evolved from Hereford to black baldie, and today is mostly Angus genetics.
The region can be good cattle country – if rainfall is ample. Or, it can be harsh with lengthy seasons of drought.
Because of this, Davis says, “Our overriding goal is to keep the cowherd adapted to the resources on the ranch.” Davis does not own a lot of machinery and does not put up any hay on the ranch. He says, “Whatever feed that’s fed is purchased.”
As a result, Davis calves in early April to better match his cows’ nutritional needs to the native range on the ranch and minimize the need for purchased feed.
Similarly, Davis has taken a no-nonsense approach to his breeding season – keeping it short and culling cows and heifers that don’t perform.
Davis explains that his breeding season starts with synchronization and A.I. of the entire herd.
Heat detection and A.I. are done for the first two days after synchronization and then all non-responders are A.I. bred on the third day (72 hours after synchronization).
“We breed cows and heifers on the same date,” Davis says. Following that, cows are turned out with clean-up bulls for two heat cycles.
“Essentially we get three heat cycles in within 45 days rather than 60 because we use synchronization and A.I. We don’t try to stretch it out,” Chance says of this breeding strategy.
Davis typically ultrasounds his cowherd about 30 days after the bulls are pulled, which allows for identifying the A.I.-bred cows and culling the open and late-bred cows – and they go to town pretty quick depending on the market and the weather, says Davis.
Regarding heifers, prior to breeding Davis keeps more than the traditional 15 percent for replacements. The heifers are synchronized and A.I.-bred along with the cows.
But the heifers are not given a second chance with clean-up bulls. Davis only keeps the replacement females that are AI.’d during the synchronization because he feels these are the reproductively superior females that will perform best in his herd.
Additionally, Davis says this gives him marketing options with the remaining heifers – he can sell the open heifers, retain ownership on them through the feedlot or put a bull with them and then sell bull-bred heifers.
“I have some flexibility with the marketing and can make decisions according to conditions,” Davis explains.
Since adding the synchronization and A.I. to their breeding strategy about 10 years ago, Davis reports that about 50 percent of his calves are born during the same week in April.
And because he has been strict about culling those with poor reproductive performance, Davis says his herd’s pregnancy rate is typically 93 to 94 percent.
He says, “We have had years better than that; I don’t recall a year that we’ve been below that.”
ID’ing problem cows
Davis believes the biggest benefit from his disciplined breeding criteria is that it provides a means for identifying problem cows early on.
He explains, “You get rid of those cows that I call 375-day cows. They were the ones who calve early the first year, but then keep falling back a cycle to breed. It was genetic.
They were cows that kept growing and didn’t survive well on these conditions. They needed more feed.
“You can solve that with a feed truck or solve it with a sale barn,” Davis says. He adds, “By shortening up your breeding season, you find those cows quicker.
With a longer breeding season, they’d be around one more year.”
Editor’s note: Davis is typically strict about culling cows that lose their calves as well. However, he notes that after the spring 2009 blizzard that hit the Dakotas, he made an exception to that rule.
What the best breeders do right
What are the secrets to a successful breeding season? Tim Olson of St. Onge, South Dakota, has been a reproductive specialist for Select Sires for nearly 20 years.
Olson – who is also Davis’ son-in-law – shares these three important tips for improving a herd’s reproductive performance:
Keep an eye on nutrition – Olson says cows will have lower breed-back if their body condition is marginal prior to the start of breeding season – especially for young and older cows.
“Nutrition is still key; I can’t emphasize that enough,” Olson says. He adds, “A breeding program can’t be successful if cows or heifers aren’t ready.”
Utilize synchronization tools – Estrus synchronization and A.I. can be an effective tool to increase pregnancy and conception rates.
That said, Olson emphasizes that attention to detail in the synchronization protocol schedule and administration of synchronization drugs is very important.
“Poor drug administration can take a program that usually has a 90 percent estrus response rate down to 50 percent,” he says.
He adds that a synchronization program should be part of a total program, saying, “If you use synchronization and A.I. along with natural service, you should easily be able to get the majority of cows bred in the first 25 to 30 days.”
Be disciplined – Olson points out that to enhance a herd’s reproductive ability down the road, a disciplined breeding program should also have a disciplined culling program – much like Davis does.
“You have to be willing to get rid of the poor performers,” said Olson. He points out that getting more cows bred at the beginning of the breeding season produces a “snowball effect” with more older females that are likely to get bred during the first cycle of the next breeding season and so on, which in turn creates a tighter calving season and a more uniform set of calves to market, Olson concludes.
Later calving offers marketing flexibility
Of his calving season in April and May – which is later than the traditional February-March calving in the Northern Plains – Chance Davis says he likes the marketing flexibility it allows him.
He says, “My main marketing goal is to not market the first of November” – which is when most of the other cattle in the region are being sold.
Rather, Davis weans and backgrounds his calves and likes having the option to sell in early winter or late spring, depending on the market.
“It allows some flexibility when you don’t do what everyone else does,” he says. Davis will also occasionally retain ownership and keep cattle through to finish.
Chance and Cindy Davis take an aggressive approach to culling cows that don’t fit reproductive standards. Photo by Kindra Gordon.