Many commercial producers, purebred producers and heifer sales management are realizing the benefits of palpating heifers before breeding. A lot can be learned from the procedure, which can also be done at pregnancy checking. It involves a more thorough exam than simply determining if heifers are pregnant.
With the advent of very early-maturing breeds such as Gelbvieh, Angus, Simmental and others, it is not unusual for unwanted pregnancies to occur when breeding bulls are left out late. By palpating early, these pregnant heifers can be identified and removed from the breeding group. If they are not heavily pregnant (less than four months) abortion is a possibility as long as there is ample time for rebreeding.
My advice for heavily pregnant animals (seven months or older) is to calve them out. A fair percentage will calve normally. Palpating will at least identify them and give you an opportunity to segregate them. If you do abort them, keep in mind they need time to clean up for rebreeding. A percentage will not rebreed so it is a risk you take. If aborted less than three months gestation I find they will clean up rather quickly (within a month) and be ready for rebreeding.
If pregnant ones are found, consult your veterinarian regarding stage of pregnancy and whether they should be aborted, left to calve or marketed. If you decide to abort, be sure and identify them in case they have problems. You may also want to repalpate them to be doubly sure that the abortion worked.
We are looking for several things hen palpating open heifers. An intact uterus is necessary to conceive and evidence of cycling can be detected by palpating both ovaries. With large herds the records of twin calves can often be lost with the grafting of twins to cows which have lost calves for various reasons. Freemartins (heifer calf born twin to a bull calf) can be detected by palpation and eliminated, as often they have only a very rudimentary uterus, or none at all. Conversely in about five per cent of cases an intact uterus with two ovaries are present and these can be retained and most times will breed.
Keep in mind palpation is almost synonymous with ultrasounding and veterinarians will use whichever technique best suits them. Either technique in the right hands provides accurate results and increases conception rates.
Evaluating the reproductive tract
Various strategies for grading the development of the reproductive tract have been tried. These are based on the size of the reproductive tract and degree of development of the ovaries. Veterinarians basically want an adequately developed uterus with ovaries that show some sign of cycling. This is more critical when we palpate closer to breeding season. Keep in mind certain breeds develop earlier than others. This will be an adjunct to a synchronized breeding program.
Pelvimetry (measuring the pelvic area as it relates to calving) can also be preformed at the same time as palpating. Both the Rice and Krautman pelvimeters are accurate in experienced hands. We measure the minimum height and maximum width of the pelvis. I am most familiar with the Krautman tool that calculates pelvic size in square centimetres and predicts the birth weight in pounds that a heifer could deliver with little or no assistance.
A cruder approach is to use your outstretched hand while palpating to at least identify very small pelvises and eliminate those animals from the breeding pool. All these techniques are used to avoid potential C-sections or hard pulls next spring by eliminating heifers with small pelvises. We can select for larger pelvises while still maintaining moderate body size in our mature cows.
Palpating also uncovers misshapen pelvises, adhesions (scar tissue), kidney infections, cystic ovaries or other internal cysts and masses. The decision then becomes to market these animals or keep them as replacements.
While you’re at it
Next, the ear tags are checked and any prebreeding shots for IBR and BVD, including a multivalent blackleg and parasite control are given as prescribed by your veterinarian.
Weight is a good way to compare heifers so if possible run them over a scale. If any genetic tests are desirable, especially with purebreds, your veterinarian will grab a hair or blood sample as well. It is often desirable to avoid selecting the most rapidly growing heifers for replacements. Avoid the top five per cent. They are often more like males hormonally and conception rates are lower.
By tying in all these procedures with palpating you will be going a long way toward selecting sound heifers that hopefully will be productive and provide fertility and longevity to your herd.
If palpating was missed last spring you can incorporate pelvimetry into pregnancy checking in the fall to look for potential calving problems. If it’s done early enough to predict those that conceived in the first, second or third cycle, the pregnancies can be staged. We need heifers calving right at the beginning of the calving season or even a cycle earlier so they rebreed and remain in the herd their second year.
Any other conformational problems in the growth of the pelvis can also be determined at this time. If done early enough with an ultrasound, heifers carrying twins may be identified so they can be segregated.
Be sure to vaccinate the bred heifers for scours, especially if you are bringing them into your herd. Palpating while reading the ear tags makes it easier to get some of this useful selection information into your database along with the usual notations for feet and legs, body condition and temperament.
In the future with more genomic testing, we will no doubt add to this list by selecting for disease resistance, parasite resistance and even fly resistance. Selection for reproductive soundness by any means possible (palpation, ultrasound or genomics) is a necessary step in today’s modern cattle operations.