by Jessica Hoerster

Barbed wire. Vaccines. Cattle trailers. Embryo transfer. At one point in time, all of these were considered new technology. Some were simply improvements on techniques or tools that were currently in use, while others had the potential to fundamentally change the industry. With so much innovation at our disposal, to use how we see fit, it is not surprising that there are virtually no two operations that are alike. Despite this, every operation has the potential to be profitable even with completely different ranching practices. It is one of the things that makes our industry so unique, and so dynamic.

As these technologies are introduced, producers who consider implementing them must weigh the risks, and the rewards, and decide if it will improve the overall efficiency and profitability of their operation. In 2013, we were faced with this dilemma when we learned about pregnancy testing using ultrasound, and considered whether or not it would be an improvement over the palpation and blood testing we had previously been doing. We ultimately decided that it would, and made the decision to purchase our own machine, a Reproscan XTC, that same year. It is a decision that we would absolutely make again if the need arose.

Essentially, ultrasound combines the accuracy and early-testing ability of blood testing with the chute-side sorting and aging capability of palpation, which is a real “win-win.” Most pregnancies can be seen at 35 days, and in some cases even as early as 27 days. In our operation, we use artificial insemination (AI) along with short, defined breeding seasons. Being able to check our cows soon after pulling bulls is important to us, along with being able to determine whether a calf is AI-sired or the result of natural service. By checking our spring-calving heifers in July and our cows in August, we are able to market our opens at the optimal time and maximize our profits. Additionally, by having accurate due dates for all of the cows, we are able to check for new calves more efficiently by focusing on finding cows that are close to calving. Ultrasound can, also, be very beneficial in herds with longer breeding seasons or that calve year-round as short-bred cows can be identified easily, as well as long-bred cows all the way up to calving.

In recent years, ultrasound machines designed specifically for pregnancy testing have become increasingly user-friendly, and hold up to chute-side work very well. It is important to decide what the primary use will be, as some are more suited for one job over another due to image quality and scanning depth. After researching all of the different models available, we decided on the XTC for several different reasons. First of all, we preferred its large field of view since we would be using it exclusively for aging and pregnancy determination. Secondly, it uses an extension arm with the transducer, or probe, as opposed to being hand-held. The transducer is fitted into the end of the extension arm, and is used rectally to obtain the image. Pregnancy checking is now faster and easier; work that used to take most of the day can be finished in a fraction of the time, provided the cows are cooperating. It is, also, safer for both the person scanning, as they don’t have to get as close to the cow, and the fetus, as it doesn’t have to be manipulated to get an image. In addition, the XTC is completely battery-powered and is very easy to set up at the chute. While we chose to use the bright LCD monitor that mounts onto the chute, there are, also, the options of using a regular-sized monitor, or goggles, if mobility is a priority.

When faced with the prospect of learning how to use new technology, it can be intimidating. To ensure their customers have the best chance of success, many different companies have made a wide array of YouTube videos available demonstrating technique and how to interpret images seen on the screen. For those who need a more hands-on approach, there are an increasing number of clinics and trainings available throughout the country. In my experience, when comparing the learning curve of ultrasound to palpation it is possible to acquire a much higher level of accuracy in a much shorter period of time. We had no problems identifying bred cows the very first day we used our XTC. While some may be better than others at palpating, ultrasound levels the playing field and gives everyone the same chance at success.

It is an industry-accepted fact that identifying bred and open cows can sometimes greatly influence an operation’s bottom line. There are numerous methods available to accomplish this, with each having their own advantages and disadvantages. Due to the fact that ultrasound is becoming increasingly more affordable and easier to use, I believe that the technology is here to stay. It is the producer’s decision to make regarding whether or not it is a good fit for their operation. Ultrasound was definitely a good fit for us.