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6 Heifer Development Considerations

Seasonal breeding and calving options provide some interesting opportunities and dilemias for heifer developers. Here are six categories that heifer developers should consider in weighing the pros and cons of spring.

Seasonal breeding and calving options provide some interesting opportunities — and dilemmas — for heifer developers. Here are six primary categories that heifer developers should consider in weighing the pros and cons of spring, summer or fall-winter breeding seasons.

  1. Climate may be the most important. Extreme environmental heat can elevate the heifer's body temperature at breeding or during early pregnancy. This can lead to reduced conception and an increase in early embryonic death. The result is a reduction in fertility and a significant loss in dollars associated with this important production trait. Cattle bred from June through August are normally most at risk.

    Cattle bred in very cold months can also suffer reduced fertility due to environmental stress, shorter photoperiod and a reduction in semen quality due to the handling of semen in less than ideal conditions.

    Rough, frozen ground conditions can make for poor footing and also affect fertility; bulls will be reluctant to mount cows. In AI programs, heat detection can become difficult if mounting activity among heifers is discouraged. There is also more potential for injury to cattle that do attempt to mount.

    Spring-bred heifers have a significant fertility advantage over summer- or winter-bred heifers because they're normally bred in a moderate climate with a lengthening photoperiod. Under such favorable conditions, even heifers that are borderline in terms of weight or age are more likely to conceive. Our experience indicates fertility rate in spring-bred heifers exceeds that of summer and winter by 5-8% over time.

  2. Facilities are a need directly influenced by climate. Cattle must be protected from extreme heat or cold during breeding. A number of things can be done to minimize the effects of extreme temperature.

    If cattle will be consistently bred in hot weather, provide shade when possible or consider a water-cooling system. On-ranch, pasture-bred heifer programs have the most advantage among summer breeding programs due to the naturally cooler environment of grass and trees compared to drylot conditions.

    In cold-weather breeding programs, provide proper wind protection and maintain reasonably smooth and dry pen conditions. Also, give thought to how semen will be handled in severe cold, wet weather. An indoor facility may not be needed if a small area can be developed where semen is protected from cold shock and moisture. In these types of extreme conditions, the use of advanced semen handling techniques are necessary as there's little margin for technician error.

  3. Labor supply in summer and winter breeding programs hold the advantage here. Particularly for diversified farm and ranch enterprises, and commercial heifer developers aiming for spring breeding programs, the year's busiest time is usually the spring. In either scenario, however, an alternative breeding time can reduce the need for extremely concentrated labor for 60-75 days each spring. This results in more efficient use of full-time, year-round employees and less stress for all involved.

  4. Availability of heifers is most important to heifer developers whose niche is producing bred heifers for sale. The basis of any successful bred-heifer sale program is the incoming replacement heifer calves. In certain regions, however, it may be difficult to identify large quantities of heifers of the correct age for summer or fall-winter breeding.

    Though usually possible, it may not be economically feasible to purchase spring-born heifers for these later breeding seasons. Thus, the alternative is importing heifers from other geographical regions that fit from the standpoint of age.

    Be sure, however, to consider adaptation issues. For instance, non-acclimated southern cattle brought north for fall breeding may experience an even higher reduction in fertility due to cold weather and shortened photoperiod.

  5. Feed supply is a particularly important factor for heifers developed under range conditions, this advantage goes to the breeding season(s) that coincide with forage production. Of course, this can vary with native range versus wheat pasture programs, and geographic region of the country.

    The overall idea, however, is to match breeding with increasing forage supplies that can provide a natural “flushing” effect prior to breeding the heifers. Good management here can optimize fertility with minimal cost. See pages 18 and 19 for more on forage management and feed supplies.

  6. Marketing provides the most opportunity — and risk — for the commercial heifer developer. While the customer base is larger for custom spring breeding programs and to buy spring-bred heifers, there is opportunity for developers willing to cater to customers interested in alternative breeding season programs.

Remember that while these heifers can be worth more per head due to less total available supply, there are also fewer customers for them. Thus, it would be wise to have customers locked in before placing such cattle for development and breeding.

Likewise, forward contracting should be considered for on-ranch developed heifers whose heifer calf progeny will be offered for sale as future replacements. This will help ensure a market outlet for your non-mainstream product.

Selecting the calving season best suited to your operation takes careful study of your goals, feed resources, climate, clientele, labor, facilities and marketing expertise. The key is fitting these elements together to optimize the total advantages for your ranching or heifer development business. The answer won't be the same for everyone.

Patsy Houghton, PhD, is general manager of Heartland Cattle Company (HCC) in McCook, NE. HCC focuses on custom and contractual heifer development, as well as research to investigate advances in nutritional, health and reproductive-management programs.