As a result of these articles, I get a lot of email. I try to respond to them all. Sometimes the answer is simple and quick. Sometimes it takes a little more thought and time.
All of my recommendations come from many years of experience starting at childhood and including over 40 years being involved in the management of several large operations where we were expected to make a profit every year. Early on, I decided it was important to really know what works and what doesn’t. I learned that “knowing” something (or thinking you know something) that isn’t right can be a great hindrance to learning the truth.
It is very easy to get caught up in old wives’ tales, paradigm lockdown, good but out-of-context research or just wrong thinking due to engrained practices or habits. After you fight your way “out of the box,” be careful to avoid building a new box. And always try to be a systems thinker—taking into account the interconnectedness of soil, plants, insects, weather, livestock, our production system, marketing, our business model, profitability and people.
In the next couple of articles, I want to provide some brief answers to questions that are frequently asked. Please understand that they are far from complete, but have weathered the test of time. Not every idea fits every place; so use them appropriately, but don’t be afraid to try.
So you ask – why do I recommend:
- Terminal matings? Do it for greater profitability, simplicity of operations and to facilitate better grazing. Greater profitability comes because every cow can produce a calf to sell. Operational simplicity reduces cost and adds to profit. Improved grazing will ultimately add to carrying capacity and profitability.
While it would be nice to be able to buy really good cows for terminal matings, they don’t have to be all that good for profitability—just average cows.
- Not buying bred heifers? Many bred heifers offered for sale have been over-developed. Thus, a good number of them are pregnant and in good condition because of feed and not because they are highly fertile and adapted to a tougher environment. Also, you must recognize that they will have the two toughest years of their life in front of them following a translocation to your place. You should also understand that a 6-year-old cow has a greater probability of having four more calves than a 2 year old—if you routinely cull opens and dries.
- Maternal matings when and IF you can sell bred cows? If you can sell a good number of bred cows for a premium price each year, you can be as profitable as those who terminal cross. This is a win/win situation. The premium rewards the maternal producer for developing, breeding and calving heifers. At the same time, the premium is a low-cost substitute for the heifer development costs avoided by the terminal producer.
- Moderate size and milk? You can simply run more cows on the same land if they are smaller and give less milk. You will wean more pounds of calf per acre and sell those pounds for more money. Smaller cows giving less milk are usually more fertile, especially in the tougher years. By the way, frame size 6 and 1,400 pounds is not moderate.
- Exposing most of the heifer calf crop to bulls for a short period of time in non-terminal or maternal herds? Even with EPDs and genomic testing, no one can select heifers for your ranch as accurately as the bull and nature. Regardless of any other genetic differences, those heifers that calve later as 2 year olds cannot live long enough to catch up with those that calve early.
On average, those calving as a result of first cycle breeding will produce one more calf and roughly 400 more pounds of calf over their lifetime. Remember, this is your cow herd we’re talking about. It is supposed to be profitable every year. Put in the heifers that can be profitable quickly. If they are bred to the right bulls, the daughters will be OK.
- Minimal development of replacement heifers? It costs less. The heifers that are truly, innately fertile are the ones most likely to breed with minimal development.
Research is showing that heifers can breed reasonably well when they reach 55% of expected mature cow weight. If you are calving in sync with nature, you will get good conception rates. Most of the pregnant heifers will become good cows, and the open heifers will be profitable when sold as feeders because of the lower cost.
My preference is to develop heifers on pasture. When snow gets too deep or crusted to graze, still keep them out of a lot and use as low-cost feeds as possible. It’s not difficult to get to 55% of mature cow weight.
- Selecting bulls from cows that always calve in the first cycle for maternal (non-terminal) herds? I personally think the heritability for first cycle conception in heifers and for the calving interval between first and second calf is higher than most of the estimates we see for fertility in general.
I would not select a yearling bull from a 2 year old until she has calved in the first cycle as a three year old. Push on fertility and survivability. You might not win the weaning weight prize, but the growth rate can be good and you will have lots of animals to sell.
- Selecting the right seedstock provider? Commercial cattlemen have paid so much money for the wrong kind—high growth, high carcass—for so long that seedstock providers are incentivized to do the wrong thing for commercial maternal herds. There is nothing wrong with growth and carcass; and in terminal herds it is highly desirable. In maternal herds, other traits are more important.
You need to find someone who will help you find bulls to produce functional and efficient females—moderate size and milk, physical soundness, high fertility on low inputs, calving ease, survivability and good longevity. Your seedstock provider also should help you include heterosis for better fertility and survivability in your cows.