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Herd Management Principles

Herd management principles may seem like a title worthy of a cure for insomnia.  However, all too many herd and flock owners lose sleep because of concerns about their animals - the cost of feed, the cost of infrastructure, health concerns, break even pricing, and 1001 other variables involved in trying to make even a living wage, let alone a living, from livestock.  So we offer the following information in the hopes that small scale herd and flock owners will indeed cure their sleepless nights, not with a boring read but with the information they need to make sound decisions about their farms and ranches. 

Some folks reading this page will be cow owners; some will own goats, some sheep.  A few will own swine.  A few others will own llamas and/or alpacas.  Some may own horses or rabbits.  Even honeybee hives could be included in this list.  And to be clear, each of those species has their own specific management issues.  The biggest differences between management of all these species will be in whether they are ruminant or non-ruminant. We'll touch on those differences on various nutritional pages elsewhere on the website.  The other major difference between these species are reproductive - if they are year-round breeders or seasonal breeders, and whether they give birth to singles, twins and triplets, or litters.  Those differences also require some detailed information.  Our purpose here is not to itemize every need for every herd.  We'll cover those differences on the various breeding and/or reproductive pages for each species.  Instead, our purpose on this page is to discuss the management issues which any livestock owner will need to consider, if that herd or flock is expected to provide a profit and/or a living wage (and we'll discuss the differences between those as well. So if this page answers the economic and financial questions faced by small scale livestock owners, and becomes a cure for small farm and ranch owner insomnia, then we're delighted.  Let's get started.

Health Maintenance Tasks

Regardless of species, any given flock or herd will have periodic health management tasks which should ideally be done on a regular basis.  The list of tasks varies by species, but can typically include things like hoof or nail trimming, fecal checks for internal parasites and visual checks for external parasites, shearing, dental floats, ovulation/estrus checks, breeding, lumbar scoring, vaccinations, testing for disease issues, castration, etc.  One of the truisms of herd management is that none of these tasks are large in and of themselves for the small herd or flock.  Typically, none of these tasks takes more than 5-10 minutes in and of themselves.  Rather, these tasks can be so low priority that they are relegated to the 'sometime' list, and then never get done.   Yet when enough of these tasks are put off too long, herd and flock health can start to be impacted, which ultimately results in higher costs, lower returns and/or outright illness and death.  So there's a case to be made to schedule these items, and ensure they're taken care of in a timely way.

How best to stay organized, schedule these events, conduct them and then record the results?  Methods vary by herd or flock owners, in part depending on herd/flock size and personal preference.  One very popular method regardless of scale is a simple calendar, with various tasks written on the days/weeks during which they need to occur.  This setup can work very well for small to medium scale enterprises, particularly when the task simply needs to be done, such as hoof/nail trimming, or vaccinations, and the owner doesn't need to record very much information about the event itself other than the fact that it was or was not completed.  Very small herd/flock owners sometimes use either hand-written notes on a calendar of their choice, or something like a Daytimer or other personal organizer where they schedule these events in advance, or they build some kind of Excel spreadsheet to itemize what needs to be done, when, and then record the task's completion date.  This approach can work very, very well for small scale producers.  The calendars can have the additional benefit of being hung right where that flock or herd's health work is to be completed, such as in the barn, medical stall, field shelter or other location to serve as a visual reminder.  One thing we've done here is to get attractive species-appropriate printed calendars, such as a calendar featuring cows, horses, pigs or whatever, and then write in the tasks in the appropriate days, weeks or months. Then as we flip through the calendar on a monthly basis out in the barn, there is our to-do list already set up and visually obvious for that month.

The Excel spreadsheet approach as a few things in its favor as well.  It's a little easier to set up a customized schedule, and then modify that schedule based on last minute events.  For instance, if I've written down shearing to take place the second weekend of April but then we have a cold snap right about then, I can easily modify the task dates in Excel.  Also, it's nice to have all those records stored on a computer file rather than on a 8.5" x 11" calendar which then has to be put on the shelf at the end of the year and saved for a number of years as a history of what happened.  Another advantage is that notes about each event can be easily written down without ever running out of space.  For instance, lumbar scoring for a herd of even 10 animals would be almost impossible to record on a standard printed calendar - there simply isn't enough space. Yet that's not a problem with a spreadsheet. Finally, it can be more convenient to have all those records right at the desk, so that the flock or herd owner can make plans (and phone calls and budget decisions) while near other records, rather than while doing chores in the barn. 

A third option is to use a dedicated livestock management software package to plan, schedule and track these events.  While typically not cost-effective for smaller scale operations, these software packages really become valuable as flock or herd size grows.  This is particular true when any given task, such as hoof trimming, shearing, vaccinations or breeding, must occur on so many animals that scheduling, cost or labor becomes an issue.  These software packages also become valuable when the owner needs to track records over a long period of time, for instance breeding records, herd health issues, grazing management decisions, etc.  It's almost a rule of thumb that the larger the operation, (or the more species a herd/flock owner is managing) the more useful and sanity-saving these software packages will be.  There comes a point where there's just too much information to keep track of otherwise.  A number of software packages exist for herd management.  If a herd or flock owner is only managing one or two species, then simply doing an online search for "cow herd management", "llama herd management", "sheep flock management", "swine herd management" or whatever is appropriate, will yield at least a half-dozen different options.

For herd and flock owners (like us) who are managing multiple species, there are a few software packages which allow for management of multiple species.  We happen to use Ranch Manager, which has different modules for different species (cow, horse, camelid, goat, sheep, etc).  There are a few others.  While these programs definitely do cost money, that cost is redeemed in the convenience of having all those records in one place.  Furthermore, the software designers have anticipated a great deal of the herd or flock herd management tasks, so that we don't have to create them from scratch or set them up.  For instance, by entering each year's kid, calf or lamb crop information into the relevant module, the pedigree and breeding sections are automatically populated with that new information.  Having worked with Excel for a long time, it is a very, VERY nice feature to enter information only once, and have it appear everywhere else it's needed.

So herd management is one part determining what tasks need to be done, one part scheduling those tasks, one part actually doing them, and one part recording the results.  Here is where personal preference and scale of operation really determine which options are most appropriate.  If a herd or flock owner has only a few tasks to be done each year, only a small number of animals to manage, and cost, labor and scheduling aren't an issue, then herd management is relatively straightforward.  As flock or herd size grows, the owner may find him/herself moving through these other methods to keep track of what needs to be done, what has been done, and what the results were.    Whatever method works best for the owner, use it.  At the end of the day, the priority is that those tasks get done in a timely way.

Feed Issues

Equipment, Fencing and Infrastructure

Breeding Management

Labor and Manpower Issues