Commercial Producers Share Their Replacement Criteria

Like shopping for a pickup, selecting heifers depends on your vision, resources and how you plan to use them.Most ranchers have certain criteria for selecting replacement heifers. Here’s a rundown of what some producers seek in selecting replacements.

January 30, 2012

10 Min Read
Commercial Producers Share Their Replacement Criteria

Ross Goddard waits up to a month after weaning to make his selection. Roy Hoffman looks for feminine-looking heifers that are smooth and well balanced.

Like shopping for a pickup, selecting heifers depends on your vision, resources and how you plan to use them. We talked to a number of commercial cow-calf producers about how they go about selecting the newest genetic components for their herds. Here’s what they had to say.

Goddard, Tendoy, ID, uses a long, but simple process in selecting replacement heifers.

“It’s not a scientific method. We don’t go back through records to see what kind of mothers they had, because if a heifer is what we’re looking for, she probably had a good mother,” Goddard says. Cows with bad udders or poor disposition have already been culled, he explains.

He also doesn’t make his selections at weaning; he’ll wait up to a month because calves “change a little after coming off their mothers.” For instance, some heifers that are bloomy-fat may not look as good later, and vice versa. He also holds back about 10% more heifers than he needs, to allow for more sorting later.

Meanwhile, Roy Hoffman, a second-generation, 50-year rancher near Salmon, ID, seeks feminine-looking heifers that are smooth and well balanced. “Some cattle today have a dip in their back, with a high tail; I keep those with a long, straight back because they seem to have fewer calving problems.”

Muscling is also important. “Even in heifers, you want them meaty as well as feminine. They also need to have easy fleshing ability, especially on the range.” Planning for the long haul, he also looks for efficient, easy keepers, with good feet and leg structure.

In selecting replacements, God-dard looks for “moderate frame size, a little femininity, a clean front end, smooth and balanced – not too coarse.” He culls the largest heifers to protect against growing the average frame size in his mature cows. He prefers a medium-sized cow that raises a big calf, rather than huge cows that eat more feed and don’t produce that much more pounds of calf.

Disposition is very important to Goddard. “I don’t care how good looking she is, or what she is, if there are any disposition issues, she’s gone,” he says.

“We work on foot during calving and can’t tolerate hard-to-handle cows. We end up with a few that surprise us anyway, but we don’t need them that way right off the bat. When we do a final sort on heifers, we sort off ‘wolfy’ or hard-to-handle heifers,” he says.

Disposition is also critical to RJ Hoffman because he handles his cattle by himself when his cows calve in late January to early February. “I don’t want problems. If a heifer is wild or flighty, I don’t keep her, or any heifer whose mother is wild,” he says.

RJ is Roy Hoffman’s son and operates his own cattle outfit, also near Salmon, ID.


The next stage in Goddard’s selection process is breeding. He looks for his most fertile heifers. He culls any that don’t breed early or end up open.

RJ Hoffman wants all his heifers bred in the first 45 days of breeding season. “I don’t subscribe to the rule that a heifer has to be 65% of her mature body weight by breeding age. I pull a few out that are too big.”

“I turn the bulls in on April 19, and take them out July 10. I preg-check heifers 30 days after the bulls are pulled. To any cows that are open, questionable or bred only a short time, I administer Lutalyse and send them with my spayed heifers to market,” RJ Hoffman says.

His cows and heifers start calving Jan. 20 and most calve in the first three weeks.

“I don’t see the point of calving heifers three weeks ahead of cows. Calving heifers earlier just makes your calving season longer. Some heifers might lose two weeks when they calve the second time under my system, but they’re back to the front of the herd by the third calf,” he says.

Any female – young or old – that doesn’t breed back early is sold, and he has a good market for those later-calving cows, he says. This constant selection pressure on fertility ensures that heifers staying in the herd come from a line of fertile

Dale Edwards, who operates in  eastern Idaho, synchronizes heifers with an MGA protocol, breeds them via artificial insemination (AI), and follows up with cleanup bulls. “We have an earlier calf crop because we get 60% of them bred early. The second time around, we get 60% of what’s left, so 80-85% of the heifers are bred in the first 45 days, instead of the typical 70% when breeding without synchronization,” he says.

He wants heifers that reach puberty quickly, without getting fat. Overweight heifers don’t breed as well as those in moderate condition, he explains.

“We don’t let cattle lose condition in winter, and we feed them more while they’re growing. The heifers stay in better condition, breed quicker, milk better and have healthier calves.” Edwards says.

Sire Selection

RJ Hoffman most emphasizes maternal traits when buying bulls. He wants bulls that sire good cows, and contends they make more money than steers in the long run. After all, cows are the future of his herd.

“I can sell good, functional females anytime. I select bulls on maternal/replacement-heifer qualities, and always use low-birthweight Angus bulls. I turn out yearling bulls with yearling heifers and keep those same bulls with them as they grow. That set of heifers will be with the same bulls for 2-3 years.”

RJ Hoffman has few calving problems among his heifers (less than 5%), which he attributes to his use of low-birthweight bulls on all his cows.

“I select bulls with low birthweight and high yearling weight. I don’t care much about weaning weight. There are some with low birthweight and high growth; you just have to find them. The trick is finding new ones for the next set of heifers,” RJ says.

Goddard says he selects bulls moderate in all traits. “We stay in the middle. It’s a way to produce good heifers and steers from the same bulls,” he says.

Roy Hoffman seeks bulls that sire good daughters. He looks at EPDs for milk, weaning indexes, birthweight, etc., and prefers moderate birthweight – about 75-82 lbs.

“When selecting for maternal traits, make sure you don’t get animals that are too fine-boned. You don’t want them coarse, but you also don’t want them too fine,” Roy says.

Edwards tries to select bulls that sire the type of heifers he wants. “Some traits people select for are just the opposite of other traits they want. If you focus on feed efficiency, you probably won’t get the highest growth or milk production. A cow that milks well generally eats a lot. Some bulls provide everything fairly well, without extremes,” he says.

Edwards has raised his own bulls for 25 years, often AI-sired from his best cows. “I usually have 6-8 brothers I keep every year. With this process, the daughters and the herd become more uniform. They’re almost like embryo transplant calves. That’s another reason I can pick my replacement heifers and they all look the same. It makes heifer selection easier,” he says.

Udders and milk

Roy Hoffman selects heifers from cows with good udders, and bulls that produce them. Even if a cow milks well, bad udder conformation can prevent her newborn from nursing. Most of his cows have good udders now, after many years of selection.

Edwards uses bulls with medium milk EPDs. He feels the result of high milk production is cows that can’t rebreed in a range environment.

Goddard tries to work the middle on milk, as well as weaning weights, etc. He agrees with Edwards that, if one selects for high milk, cows won’t breed back as readily, requiring too much energy.

“We try to stay above average, but not extreme. Moderate traits get you further because your cows last longer and are more efficient than some of the high-performance cattle.” 

Thoughts On Selection From Seedstockers

Seedstock breeders generally use performance criteria when selecting heifers, but also keep maternal goals in mind.

Kelly Schaff, St. Anthony, ND, considers six traits in selecting heifers for his Angus seedstock operation, Schaff Angus Valley:

• Body type – thick, deep bodied cattle and easy fleshing ability, avoiding extremes in frame size.

• Femininity – feminine head and neck with an angular, maternal look.

• Disposition – gentle, easy to be around.

• Structure – correct feet and legs.

• Dam’s production record and body type, udder quality, etc.

• EPDs.

Monroe Magnuson, Castledale, UT, raises Angus and Chiangus seedstock. He looks at performance records first. “I go through the numbers but, in the back of my mind, I have the dam’s history and things we can’t measure, like udders and disposition,” he says.

Craig Bieber (Bieber Red Angus, Leola, SD) says his process involves several steps. “We cut off outliers at weaning, eliminating anything below 95 ratio. We look at all the other data, but don’t make selections until we get yearling weights, yearling data and carcass ultrasound,” he says.

Joe Van Newkirk, who raises Hereford seedstock near Oshkosh, NE, says that, in addition to his minimum EPD standards, he looks for depth of rib and flank (indication of fleshing ability), structural correctness, femininity, pigment around eyes and, if possible, on the udder.

“In the Hereford breed, we try to have as much pigment as possible. I also want a lot of hair in our climate.” A thick, healthy hair coat correlates with many good qualities, including fleshing ability, he says.

Other factors on his list include udder structure, disposition and calving ease – he doesn’t keep heifers that had problems being born. He prefers heifers from fertile, older cows – proven producers. 

Crossbred/composite heifers

“Crossbred heifers can be really good, especially Hereford-Angus,” says Roy Hoffman. “They make really good range cows. Today, mine are mostly Angus, but we have a few Charolais-cross cows (¾ Angus) and we like them. A good crossbred heifer makes the best cow.”

Ross Goddard’s cattle are Optimizers, an Angus-Salers composite. “Optimizer cows have better longevity than straight Angus and we don’t have the turnover a lot of breeds have. We also use Optimizer bulls, so the calves have the same mix and retain hybrid vigor. This also makes a difference in maternal traits,” he says.

“A person has a big investment in raising heifers. If they’ll last another two years, you don’t have to keep quite as many heifers each year. Our cows also have to perform well in a range environment. When we bring them home in the fall, we wean the calves and the cows go back out on the mountain until November. They have to be hardy,” he says.

His heifers calve in January, his cows in February. They must be fertile to breed early and breed back quickly before they go to the range. He likes the fertility and efficiency of composites.

Most of his cows are black, but a few are red. “We try to keep them mostly black just because that’s what everyone seems to want. We don’t keep any heifers with white in the udder area,” in order to minimize sunburned or chapped teats, Goddard says. 

Keep more than you need

Dale Edwards grows his heifers to yearlings before selecting replacements. It helps him identify those that continue to grow well and “weren’t just bloomy with baby fat from milk.” He sells the rejects as feeders.

RJ Hoffman, Salmon, ID, keeps all his heifers, selecting the top 75% to breed, and spaying the rest. “The few that don’t breed or breed late also go to market. Keeping this many heifers enables me to sell bred cows,” he says.

He sells late-calving cows, or older, solid-mouthed cows with several years’ production left. He strives to keep his herd young and tightly bunched in calving.

“This gives my cow customer a good set of cows, while I push my cow age down. The cows I sell are good for somebody else for quite awhile, and I can keep more heifers coming on,” Hoffman says.

Heather Smith Thomas is a rancher and freelance writer in Salmon, ID.

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