Upon being asked recently to talk on management of reproduction, I cautioned that if I did so, I would present some contrarian points of view they might not want to hear. I was still invited. Similarly, my intent with this column isn’t to offend, but to stimulate some thought process about how to “manage” reproduction.
It’s easy to understand that genetics, nutrition, and fertility and estrus interact with each other. Changes in marketing can either be the reason for, or the reaction to, changes in the others. Here are a few management ideas I’ve found very helpful in building whole-herd reproduction and profitability.
• First, I want to develop heifers much like I would over-winter a stocker animal. Doing this should result in more profitability from the open heifers. First off, I agree with recent research indicating that heifers – to be a good heifer and cow – don’t have to reach 65% of expected mature cow weight before breeding. Rather, 55%-60% seems to be sufficient. In fact, I’ve often had heifers at the low end of, or even below, that range and still experienced acceptable pregnancy rates. Research indicates that, once pregnant the first time, these heifers can be more fertile cows and raise better calves the rest of their lives.
A Closer Look: What’s The Real Cost Of Heifer Development?
• Second, I like to expose significantly more heifers than I want to have pregnant, but expose them for only a very short time – 24-30 days. Those that get pregnant in this short period of time are the very heifers you want to keep, as they obviously have the ability to conceive. Such heifers also are adapted to your method of development. If your heifer breeding season is currently 60 days or more, you may want to take 2-3 years to get all the way to 30 days or less.
If your heifer pregnancy rates have been in the 85%-95% range, you initially may be disappointed with a pregnancy rate of 65%-80%. That’s why we expose more than we want to become pregnant. If you’re reducing the level of development and shortening the breeding season simultaneously, you may want to move a little more slowly or expose a larger number of heifers. In my experience, the open heifers are a very good profit center, while the pregnant heifers become very good cows.
Following pregnancy check, you usually have some marketing options. In most cases, you’ll choose to sell the open heifers. However, you may know of a market for heifers bred to calve in a season about six months later than yours. The heifer could be re-exposed to fit that calving time.
Some would argue that a heifer allowed to move to a six-month later season isn’t as good genetically as those that bred earlier. While I would concur, the heritability isn’t high, and such heifers may fit nicely into a ranch that doesn’t want to, or can’t, develop replacements.
Also, for reasons I don’t understand, some people would rather buy a replacement heifer than a replacement cow. If you have more pregnant heifers than you need, which is better than not having enough, you’ll need to choose between selling a few bred heifers or some bred cows. This decision is usually based on prices available at the time in relationship to the projected production and cost of managing a cow compared to a first-calf heifer.
One thing to remember is that an 800-900-lb. bred heifer won’t sell as well as a 1,000-lb. “over-conditioned” heifer. I’ve always had some cows marked to sell that seemed to make room for the extra heifers.
• Third, now that I’m bringing heifers into my herd with a very short calving season and a long interval between calving and the start of breeding season, I want to work on achieving or maintaining a short calving season in my cowherd. To do this, I may leave the bulls with the cows until pregnancy check.
I know, you’re thinking: “long breeding season, short calving season – how does that work?” This is where marketing comes in. After 30-45 days of calving, cows that haven’t calved can be grouped together and sold as later-calving cows – either as pairs shortly after calving, or later as cows bred to calve in a later season.
I used a 30-day calving season on some ranches for the last 10 years or so before I retired – selling the later-calving cows to another ranch that bought all its replacement cows and calving a month later than we did. We had a large enough group that we could breed the late-calving cows to calve a month later than our season, and didn’t sell until after weaning and pregnancy diagnosis.
At pregnancy check time, we put pregnant cows that would calve after 60 days with the opens (actually there were some pregnant cows included that weren’t far enough along to determine pregnancy). These cows were rechecked about 45 days later, and the pregnant cows were sold to another ranch that calved two months later than we did.
Breaking Down The Numbers: Is Pregnancy-Checking Worth the Cost?
As presented, theseideas will only work for a few ranches, but the concepts can be adapted and used on many ranches. Management of reproduction should be closely linked to marketing. Many ranches should be buying replacement cows – especially smaller ranches. They’ll never have to calve or breed a heifer, nor market the calf from a heifer that probably doesn’t fit well with the rest of the calves. They won’t have to manage different age groups, which will allow much greater efficiency in labor and grazing management.
There are significant economies of size in developing replacement heifers. It’s nearly as difficult to calve out 30 females as 300. The same applies with artificial insemination.
Small groups ruin labor and grazing efficiency. If a ranch has adequate size and can excel at developing good cows starting as heifers, there can be a real win-win opportunity to develop heifers and sell excess cows at a price that rewards for the effort, as well as the lower production and increased costs of maintaining a first-calf heifer. In the meantime, the cost is significantly less than the cost of developing heifers in small groups. The ranch purchasing replacement cows essentially lets another ranch do much of the management of reproduction for him.
I’ve been on both sides. I’ve produced the cows to be sold as replacements and felt adequately rewarded for keeping an excess of heifers and making cows to sell as replacements. At the same time and for the same price, I’ve also bought cows for a different size and kind of ranch and avoided developing and managing heifers. This was especially nice when all of the replacement cows could come from the same ranch.
For ranches keeping and raising replacements, it doesn’t take many years of exposing more heifers than needed for a short period and selling late-bred and late-calving cows, before a high percentage of your calves will be born in the first 30 days of the calving season.
Burke Teichert, consultant on strategic planning for ranches, is retired as vice president and general manager of Deseret. He can be reached at [email protected].