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Burke Teichert: 10 thoughts on heifer development

One of the biggest determinants of ranch profit is the cost of developing or acquiring herd replacements.

Much has been written recently on heifer development. Here are 10 comments, in no particular order, related to the subject:

1.     Know going into it, replacements will determine ranch profitability.

One of the biggest determinants of ranch profit is the cost of developing or acquiring herd replacements. Of the various accounting methods you might use, cow acquisition costs must be absorbed in the sale of cattle.

2.     Develop or buy?

Therefore, the first decision to make is whether to develop your own heifers or buy replacement cows—notice that I said cows. While purchased heifers might be slightly better genetically, they have the two toughest years of their life ahead of them and will have to adjust to a new environment after relocation. If you are not raising your own, buy bred cows. The terminal sires you use will be the major determinant of the quality of your calves.

3.     Keep that breeding season short, and then cull.

I have continually encouraged keeping all but the poorest heifer calves and exposing them to AI and/or bulls for a very short time—not more than 30 days. I’ll guarantee that the bulls and the environment will select better heifers than you will. The main reason is that heifers that breed and calve late cannot live long enough to catch up with those that breed and calve early regardless of genetic superiority in non-fertility traits.

4.     Develop those heifers on grass.

I don’t like to develop heifers in pens. I think they should be wintered like dry wintered stockers on grass, crop residues or hay along with appropriate protein and mineral supplementation.

Work at the Fort Keogh Livestock and Range Research Station at Miles City, Mont., and at New Mexico State indicate that including Rumensin and a high proportion of bypass protein in the yearling heifer supplement will pay reproduction dividends into the cows’ later life. No, they won’t all get pregnant with this kind of development, but the open heifers should be profitable, and the pregnant heifers are set up to become very good cows.  It’s been so long ago that I can’t remember the numbers, but on the ranch where I was raised in western Wyoming at 6200 feet elevation with a lot of snow, our heifer calves were fed hay and free choice salt. Occasionally, I remember feeding them a little grain.

5.     Nutrition matters.

Since heifers developed in this manner are smaller than typical heifers and still need to grow while getting ready to calve, it is good to ensure adequate protein and quality pasture as they approach calving season or perhaps before the second breeding season if you are calving in summer or fall. You would much rather that they fail to breed and fall out as yearlings than as two year olds.

6.     Is reproduction really a genetic trait?

There are those who will argue that the heritability of reproduction is low. You can almost make any yearling heifer get pregnant if you provide enough feed. Therefore, you could argue that most of reproduction is due to management.

However, if you restrict inputs or expect the animals to get pregnant in tougher conditions, I think the heritability becomes higher—at least there is certainly more segregation when all are given the same chance to get pregnant. But, even if the heritability is low, it still makes economic sense to select the heifers that become pregnant early in the breeding season because of their economic advantage over late bred heifers.

In this argument, a short calving season and low heifer development costs are significantly more important economically than genetics for growth and carcass. That’s not saying you abandon growth and carcass, but don’t let them rule.

7.     Let’s emphasize a short calving season one more time. It’s important.

The cows in most herds are fairly evenly distributed under a bell shaped curve—with a few very good cows, a few bad ones and the rest scattered in between with more around average. We should cull the obviously bad ones every year. That will keep the bottom end cleaned up fairly well.

It’s really hard to tell the truly good cows. We might know the weaning weight of their calves. We might know their calving interval. We might know they are problem free.  But, we don’t know how much feed they ate in relationship to the pounds of calf they produced. We probably don’t know their contribution to carcass quality, etc.

When all traits are considered economically, I think it is really difficult to know how to separate the good cows from the average except by calving date.  So, set your herd up to calve early by selecting heifers that calve early—hopefully as a result of first cycle conception.

8.     Are your bulls really that good?

One more question—If you are buying good bulls, why will you keep a cow when you are not willing to give her daughter a chance to breed? If you won’t keep the heifer calf, would that not be a reason to cull the mother? Or is it possible that the bulls you bought aren’t so good after all?  If sire and dam are both good, shouldn’t you give the daughter a chance to show she can get pregnant on time?  If she does that, she’s already on the road to being pretty good.

9.     Steers as a by-product?

I have a good friend who retains all of his steer calves to run as yearling stockers. Even doing that, he says that his steers are a by-product of his bred cow business. By keeping and exposing most of his heifers, he has a good number of bred cows to sell. He does breed the heifers longer than I recommend, but sells those that breed later—after 24-30 days depending on breeding success.

While I don’t believe in buying bred heifers for replacements, I don’t have any problem selling them to those who still haven’t figured it out. In the meantime, he doesn’t keep many cows over six years old—just the very best.  So, when you buy cows from him, you will be getting good young cows.

10.  Terminal cross for growth, carcass

For many people, it is much simpler to buy replacement cows from those who make good cows as described above. Then breed them to bulls that favor growth and carcass.

Teichert, a consultant on strategic planning for ranches, retired in 2010 as vice president and general manager of AgReserves, Inc. He resides in Orem, Utah. Contact him at [email protected]

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