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Research   »   Production Practices on Cow-Calf Operations

Production Practices on Cow-Calf Operations

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Industry data provided by production surveys can serve as a benchmark for production performance across the country. Historical production surveys include the Alberta Cow-Calf Audit (1986-88, 1997-98) and “Reproductive Efficiency and Calf survival in Ontario Beef Cow-calf Herds” (1983). Sixteen years later, the survey was revived, revised and expanded into the Western Canadian Cow-Calf Survey (WCCCS, 2014). In the last two production years, additional surveys have occurred across Canada (Western Canada, Ontario, Northern Quebec, Atlantic). These have provided an overall picture of current production and management practices on beef cow-calf operations in each region of the country for the first time. The objective of these surveys were multi-faceted.

Download the full Adoption Rates of Recommended Practices Report 

Canadian Cow-Calf Surveys

First, to establish industry benchmarks for production indicators and management practices. Herd productivity is closely linked to herd profitability. The break-even price for calves can be lowered by decreasing total cow herd costs or by increasing the total pounds of calves weaned. Increasing the total weight (lbs) of weaned calves can be achieved by improving herd productivity, such as:

   a) INCREASING – conception rates, weaning rate, etc.

   b) DECREASING – calf death loss, calving span, etc.

While it is good management to track and calculate one’s herd production performance indicators on an annual basis, it can be helpful to have benchmarks to compare to. Benchmarks help a producer know if they are on the right track for their region and the environment they operate in. They can help a producer identify if they excel in a certain area and/or could improve in another. Benchmarks can also help to show what production and management practices other producers are following.

Second, to establish industry trends. The longer history of cow-calf surveys in Alberta show how producer adoption for different practices has changed (or didn’t change) over time. Regional expansion plans in the Maritimes and Northern Ontario and Quebec have spurred an interest in monitoring trends in those areas as they focus on improving profitability and growing inventories.

Third, to guide research and extension efforts. Information around death loss rates and causes can inform research efforts into specific diseases. It can also highlight areas where extension and communication about existing tools and information to producers, based on research that has already been done, could benefit cow-calf operations.


When reading the results, it should be remembered that differences between regions does not necessarily mean that producers need to jump at a new practice because environmental conditions and production systems influence whether a practice makes sense in one situation and not in another. In addition, there were differences between how questions were asked and therefore results are not always comparable between surveys, not only between regions, but within regions historically.


Pregnancy detection is a recommended practice that allows producers to make management decisions (e.g. utilization of winter feed) and marketing decisions based on the reproductive status of their herd.

Over the past thirty years, it appears that there is an upward trend in producers adopting pregnancy checking. In 1997/98 the Alberta cow-calf audit reported that 49% of producers preg-checked their herd. This increased to 60% preg-checking some or all their cows and 66% preg-checking heifers in 2014 (WCCCS) and that has increased to 62% always checking cows and 71% checking heifers in 2017 (WCCCS II). Rogers et al (1985) reported that 12% of Ontario producers preg-checked in 1983 and this increased to 66% of producers preg-checking cows and 64% checking heifers in 2015/16.

There still remains an opportunity for even greater uptake, with existing data demonstrating that approximately one-third of producers in western Canada and half of the producers in Atlantic Canada have yet to regularly adopt this practice on their farms.

Percent of farms that pregnancy checked females

Sources: ACC, 2018; OCC, 2018; WCCCS II, 2018 (includes “almost always” responses)

WCCCS II respondents that indicated they rarely or never pregnancy check most commonly provided reasons such as preferring to sell open cows when prices are higher; can “tell” which females are open; and the financial benefit doesn’t outweigh the cost. Other barriers to adoption that were reported to a lesser extent included being busy with other farming activities, a lack of labour and a lack of facilities.

Pain Mitigation for Dehorning

Recent advances in pain mitigation have provided producers with opportunities to use products that were unavailable in the past. Using pain mitigation, such as NSAIDs, and/or anesthetics, during painful procedures is a recommended practice. Uptake of pain mitigation has increased in western Canada from 9% as reported in WCCCS in 2014 to 45% in 2017. Across Canada, current uptake is hovering around 50%.

There is an opportunity for extension efforts to target the remaining 49-55% of producers across regions who are dehorning calves without using pain medication. The type of pain control used varies by region, with the use of painkillers (ex. NSAIDs) only being the most common in western Canada (85%) while Ontario has more variation with 41% using a local anesthetic plus painkiller (ex. Meloxicam), 35% local anesthetic/nerve block only, 17% painkiller only, and 7% other.

Proportion of producers mitigating pain during dehorning

Sources: ACC, 2018; OCC, 2018; WCCCS, 2018


Only 2.4% of Ontario survey respondents implanted their 2016 calves, this is significantly lower than Western Canada at 26.5% (WCCCS, 2017). Producers who did report using implants indicated they used them before weaning and/or at weaning. Of Western Canada respondents who used implants, they favoured implanting non-replacements over implanting all calves. Interestingly, of WCCCS II respondents that did not implant, the main reason they cited was they were philosophically opposed to the technology, making this option nearly as popular as producers that chose to implant calves.


Low-stress weaning practices (two-stage and fenceline) increased in western Canada between 2014 and 2017. All other regions had traditional separation rates that were lower than the WCCCS, 2014 levels.

Weaning method according to region

Sources: ACC, 2018; OCC, 2018; WCCCS, 2014; WCCCS, 2017; Lamothe, 2016.

Vaccination and Parasite Control

Vaccinating breeding females for reproductive disease and vaccinating calves for respiratory disease are recommended practices. Vaccination requirements vary by region and by farm as production and management practices can increase or decrease the amount of risk cattle are exposed to.

General herd vaccination levels

Sources: Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, 1997-98; ACC, 2017; OCC, 2017; WCCCS, 2014; WCCCS II, 2017; Lamothe, 2018

Managing for external parasites is relatively stable across Canada (84-91%) and varies by animal types (73-91%). Internal parasites management is lower (63-82%) across regions and again varies by animal type (63-74%).

Future Surveys

Ideally these cow-calf surveys would be updated every five years. In order for all the regional surveys occur in the same production year (for comparability), they would need to target data collection on the 2022 calf crop. Some regional surveys may occur more frequently. For example, with the implementation of the programs outlined in the Maritime Beef Sector Development and Expansion Strategy, it is intended that the Atlantic survey will be repeated on a bi-annual basis as a means to measure the impact of the strategy on the local beef industry. 

Western Canadian Cow-Calf Survey (WCCCS II) 2016/17

The second Western Canadian Cow-Calf Survey (WCCCS II) was distributed to producers from November 2017 until the end of February 2018. A total of 261 survey responses were received (representing 34,500 cows). Response rates varied by province with the greatest percentage of respondents being from Alberta (41%), followed by Saskatchewan (27%), Manitoba (25%) and British Columbia (7%). The average age of survey respondents was 50 with an average of 27 years in the cattle business.

Calving and Reproduction

Survey respondents provided details on their 2017 calf crop starting with the 2016 breeding season and ending with weaning. Cow:bull ratio averaged 21:1 and breeding season length averaged 91 days, steady with the 2014 WCCCS. A breeding season no longer than 63 days is recommended to maintain a 365 day calving interval and improve calf crop uniformity, but only 20% of respondents achieved this recommended target, down from 25% in 2014.

Breeding heifers 4 to 6 weeks before the cows is recommended so that heifers have more time to recoup (i.e. longer post partum interval) after their first calf is born. Only 14% of survey respondents bred their heifers 14 days before the rest of the herd, down from 26% in 2014.

The average open rate was 8% in cows and 12% in heifers. The conception rate for all females was 92% compared to 92.8% in 2014 and 95.6% in AB in 1998.


The most common weaning method remains traditional separation (49% down from 70% in 2014), with others using low-stress fenceline (35% up from 22% in 2014), two-stage/nose paddle (12% up from 6% in 2014) or natural (3% steady with 2014). The calf crop (calves weaned per female exposed) was 85%, with 533 lbs weaned per female exposed, steady with 2014 and 28 lbs higher than in 1998.


About 68% of respondents sold a portion of their calves at weaning, with 22% preconditioning (up from 9% in 2014) and 45% retain ownership and sell as yearlings or fed cattle. Some producers used multiple calf marketing strategies. Most respondents (59%) marketed calves via live auction, 20% sold calves direct/private treaty, 11% used electronic auction and 5% used an order buyer.


Only 26.5% of survey respondents implanted their 2017 calves, up slightly from 24% in 2014.


The majority (89%) of respondents report having more than 75% polled calves. About 31% of respondents always use some form of pain mitigation when dehorning, while 14% use it occasionally.  Pain killers (analgesics) were used the majority of time (86%), while 9% used a combination of local anesthetic and pain killers.


The majority (93.5%) of respondents castrate calves before 3 months of age. An increasing number used pain mitigation when castrating with 13% always using pain control measures and 15% will use pain control depending on age and method. That is a notable increase over the 4.2% of respondents in the 2014 WCCCS. Some of the 2017 respondents said although they didn’t use it that year, they were planning to include pain control in future calf treatment protocols.

Other Practices

About 77% of producers performed some type of body condition scoring: 13% performed hands-on BCS scoring, while 64% used a visual method. 77% vaccinate calves for respiratory diseases, and 65% vaccinate cows and heifers for reproductive diseases.  Over 62% lab test their winter feed for quality at least occasionally (up from 47% in 2014), and 95% of those use the results to balance rations.

For more information:

Alberta Cow-Calf Audit 1997/98 http://westernbeef.org/pdfs/economics/AB_CowCalf_Audit.pdf

Western Canadian Cow-Calf Survey 2014 http://westernbeef.org/pdfs/economics/WCCCS_Summary_Overall_Jun2015.pdf

Western Canadian Cow-Calf Survey 2017 http://westernbeef.org/pdfs/wcccs/2017_WCCCS_Summary-FINAL.pdf

Ontario Cow-Calf Survey 2015/16

The 2015/16 Ontario Cow-Calf Survey, the first since 1983, was distributed to producers from April 2017 to November 2017. A total of 83 survey responses were received (representing 4,300 cows).

Survey respondents provided details on their 2016 calf crop starting with the 2015 breeding season and ending with weaning. Cow:bull ratio averaged 24:1 and breeding season length averaged 118 days for cows and 107 days for heifers. A breeding season no longer than 63 days is recommended to maintain a 365 day calving interval and improve calf crop uniformity.

Calving and Reproduction

The target is to have 60%+ of females calving in the first 21 days of the calving, 20-25% in the second 21 days and the remaining in the third 21 days. The survey showed on average 5-10% of all females calved after 63 days or 3 cycles. The rectangles shown in the graph below indicate the suggested range for the percentage of females calving within each 21-day time frame. For example, in the first 21 days (top line) it is recommended that 60-65% of cows and heifers will calve. The heifer line is meeting the target; however the cow line has some room to improve. 

Percentage of Females Calving in Each 21 Day Period (Median Percentage)

The average open rate was 9% in cows and 14.5% in heifers. The average conception rate was 89% on cows and 87% on heifers. About 26% of producers regularly body condition score.

Pregnancy checking is used by 66% on cows and 64% on heifers. Bull soundness evaluations were used by 17% of respondents. Bull selection is based on breed, conformation, pedigree and birth weight.

When it came to calving ease, producers reported that 17% of heifers needed some assistance, while only 4% of cows needed assistance. The C-section rate was very low for both groups — 0.1% for cows and 0.4% for heifers. The average abortion rate across farms was 1.0% for cows and 0.6% for heifers. The average birth weight was 84.5 lbs with 28% using a scale, 13% using a weight tape, 16% estimating and 43% not reporting.

Calf death

The average calf death loss for both cows and heifers was reported at about 8% (8.2% for cows and 7.5% for heifers). The percentage of calves born dead or that died within the first 24 hours was 3% for cows and 4.1% for heifers. The calves that died from birth to weaning was 5.3% for cows and 3.4% for heifers.

There were four main causes of death - scours, respiratory disease, predators, and unknown causes. Scours was significantly higher for heifers at 52%; but was also the main cause of death for calves born to cows (31%). Early life interventions included selenium (71%), weighing (57%), and vitamins (55%).


The most common weaning method remains traditional separation (54%), with others using fence line (22%), two-stage/nose paddle (15%) or natural (5%) weaning.


Most respondents (65%) marketed calves via live auction, 15% sold direct to feedlot, and 4% used an order buyer. Creep feeding, the practice of supplementing the dam’s milk with feed provided in pasture, appears to be a regular practice for the responding operations with two-thirds (66%) of participating operations using this practice.


The majority (86%) of respondents report having more than 75% polled calves. About 36% of respondents always use some form of pain mitigation when dehorning, while 15% use it based on age and method.  Some 35% who do use pain control methods use a local anaesthetic only, 41% use a local as well as a pain killer such as meloxicam, 17% use only a pain killer and 7% use other pain control methods.


The majority (53%) of respondents castrate calves shortly after birth, 11% at spring processing, 25% at weaning, and 11% at other times with 26% saying they use pain control.

Other Practices

The majority (88%) reported they do vaccinate cattle for different diseases. Among those who do vaccinate, 52.5% reported that they provide vaccination of females prior to breeding. Over 34% lab test their winter feed for quality at least occasionally, and 79% of those use the results to balance rations. Over half (54%) provide water pumped to a trough and 30% had tested water quality within the past five years.

For more Information:

Rogers, R.W., Martin, S.W., and Meek, A.H, 1985. Reproductive Efficiency and Calf Survival in Ontario Beef Cow-Calf Herds: A Cross-sectional Mail Survey. Can. J. Comp. Med. 49, 27-33. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1236112/pdf/compmed00001-0029.pdf

Ontario Cow-Calf Production Survey 2015/16

Northern Quebec Cow-Calf Survey 2015/16

The first ever Northern Quebec Cow-Calf Survey had a total of 99 responses representing 12,607 females with an average herd size of 137 females (cows and heifers). Survey respondents provided details on their 2016 calf crop starting with the 2015 breeding season and ending with weaning. The majority of herds were commercial (88%) while purebred (12%) herds were also represented. Over half (52%) of respondents were single owner-operators with the rest having a second (40%) owner-operator or more. The average age of respondents was 54 years old, with an average of 24 years of experience in beef production.

Calving and Reproduction

Pregnancy checking by ultrasound is used by 75% of respondents. Bull selection is based on purebred EPDs, physical appearance, and performance. 49% sourced breeding bulls from a purebred producer, 15% from a bull-test station, 11% from their own herd, 8% from auction and 6% from commercial producers.

Calf death

The average calf death loss was about 5.3% with 2.5% of calves born dead or that died within the first 24 hours and 2.8% from birth to weaning. There were four main causes of calf deaths – birthing complications (abortion, dystocia), scours, respiratory disease, and unknown causes. Health management for calves included navel dip (34%), selenium/vitamin E injection (92%), vitamin A/D injection (58%).


The most common weaning method remains traditional separation (67%), with others using fenceline (23%), two-stage/nose paddle (2%) or natural (1%) weaning. Only 17% sold calves at weaning; while 33% did not sell any of the 2016 calf crop in the 2016 calendar year.  Creep feeding, the practice of supplementing the dam’s milk with feed provided in pasture, appears to be a regular practice for the responding operations with 27% of participating operations using this practice.


The majority (85%) of respondents’ report using polled genetics - 33% dehorn shortly after birth, 50% at weaning. With 20% using dehorning paste followed by 17% using electric disbudder/wire, and 13% disbudder/scalpel. About 15% of respondents always use some form of pain mitigation when dehorning, while 15% sometimes use pain control.


The majority (64%) of respondent’s castrate calves shortly after birth, 29% at weaning, and 7% at other times. The vast majority (94%) use a rubber bands with 6% saying they always use pain control and 3% sometimes use pain control.

Other Practices

About 50% of producers body condition score their cows. 38% of respondents used only one breeding group; 31% used two, and 30% used three or more breeding groups. 75% provided salt and 87% provided mineral to cows and bulls year-round.

The majority (72%) reported they vaccinate their cows, and 94% vaccinate their calves. Similarly, 93% deworm their cows and 92% deworm their calves.

Over 43% test their feed for quality and 26% of those use the results to balance rations. The majority (>95%) provide water pumped to a trough and 17% had tested water quality within the past five years. In addition, 86% have completed soil sample results in the last five years.

In terms of innovation, 40% use an RFID reader. Record keeping systems were primarily paper (80%), Excel (24%), and smartphone/tablet (18%). In terms of programs 83% have an environmental farm plan, 67% have a preventative health program, 63% have read the Beef Code of Practice.

The full summary report is available at https://www.uqat.ca/beef-symposium-production/doc/northen-beef-study.pdf

Atlantic Cow Calf Survey 2016/17

The first ever, Atlantic Cow-Calf Survey was administered during the fall of 2017. There were 65 fully completed surveys which answered all 79 questions. Forty three percent of the responses were from New Brunswick, 31% from Nova Scotia, 26% from Prince Edward Island, and less than 1% from Newfoundland and Labrador. The majority of the primary decision makers were males between the age of 45 and 60 years. In total, 44% of respondents work off the farm full time. Breed composition of the cow herds indicated 65% were commercial, 29% purebred and 6% other.

Calving and Reproduction

On average there were 44 breeding females per operation with 61% of operations calving inside barns or covered sheds. Scour vaccination was administered to cows and heifers by 35% of operations participating in the survey. In total, 78% of cows and 79% of heifers calved in the first 42 days of calving. The average length of the breeding season for cows and heifers was 136 days, and average length of the calving season was 121 days. It was noted that some operations have year-long breeding and calving seasons. The recommended practise is a 63-day breeding period to allow females to recover after calving before the next breeding.

Calf death

The calf birth weight from cows and heifers was on average 88 lbs. Common treatments after calving included castration using a rubber band, inserting a management tag as well as a selenium and vitamin E shot. Death loss at birth for cows was 6%. Calf losses were primarily due to scours/diarrhea for cows and weather for heifers.


The average weaning weight for calves was 593 lbs. The most common weaning method was by traditional separation of cows and calves, however, 20% reported using two stage weaning. Traditional separation may be used by many operations due to the fact 42% of steer calves and 26% of heifer calves were sold at weaning. Of the heifer calves, 24% were kept as replacements. Approximately 25% of both the steers and heifers were backgrounded for 30-60 days prior to sale.


Over 60% of responses reported that 100% of their calves were born polled. The most common dehorning method was by using spoons, cutting or Barnes dehorner.

Other Practices

Bull Purchasing

Bull purchases were made primarily through another producer, followed by the annual bull sale at the Maritime Beef Test Station and purchase from outside the province. Bull purchases were based on breed, conformation, pedigree, Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs), and being polled. Bulls were culled for reproductive issues, physical soundness and age.

Pasture and Forage Management

One of the key strengths of beef production in the Atlantic region is the capacity to grow forage. Prior to weaning, 95% of respondents are using rotational grazing. At weaning, there is a shift towards continuous grazing. Of the 64 respondents, 75% did not test their feed quality and only 10% claimed to test feed on a regular basis. From the 26% total that did test their feed in 2016, 72% used the results to balance a ration.

On average, the respondents achieved 92 days on permanent pasture, 83 days on silage, 74 days on baled hay, 66 days on stock piled pasture, 52 days on crop residues and 33 days on grazing annuals. Just 22% of respondents were rejuvenating pastures every 1-5 years.

Health Management

The most commonly treated parasites included lice (84%) and internal worms (70%). Of the respondents, 73% typically vaccinate cattle and 45% vaccinate females pre-breeding. Over 80% claimed to inject in the neck region. From the 64 respondents, 97% are providing mineral to cattle. The most common method of mineral supplementation is free choice mineral. Mineral was provided at pasture turn out and at calving at 29% and 21% respectively.

For more Information:

The full aggregate results report from the survey is available on the Maritime Beef Council website at www.maritimebeef.ca .

This topic was last revised on April 29, 2019 at 1:58 AM.

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