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Replacement heifers

16 practical tips for selecting productive replacement heifers

An important part in sorting the wrong kind from the right kind is how heifers are managed from weaning to breeding. One rancher offers her time-tested tricks to pick the best replacements.

Selecting replacement females is important for long-term sustainability and productivity of your cow herd. The wrong kind of females won’t generate as much cash flow and may cost more than you can afford in additional inputs.

An important part in sorting the wrong kind from the right kind is how heifers are managed from weaning to breeding. When done correctly, it can be part of the selection process, to make sure you end up with heifers that can do the best job.

Getting started

Weaned heifer calves won’t generate income for two years. Rather than put them in a high-input artificial environment and hauling expensive feed to them, some ranchers feel they should be treated like the cows they will become.  

That means, on most ranching operations, they should be out foraging with minimum inputs from you. If a heifer can’t do this, she probably won’t make an efficient and profitable cow. 

One solution to finding the right kind is to retain nearly all heifer calves, roughing them through winter and exposing them to a bull for a short time; one or two cycles at most. This allows the bulls and your ranch environment to sort out your best replacements, meaning only the most efficient and early-maturing heifers become cows. If you preg-check early, the ones that didn’t breed can be sold at the peak of the yearling market.

If you breed heifers to calve in April or May, most will conceive during the first part of the breeding season. Even heifers that were a little thin during winter can catch up—with two to three months of green grass before breeding. If you end up with more bred heifers than you need, you can sell the extras to other ranchers who prefer to buy bred replacements instead of developing their own.

Selection considerations

While your environment will do the best job selecting heifers for function, efficiency and fertility, there are a few other things to consider as well. Here are some time-tested tricks that have worked for ranchers as they select replacements:

  • If you make selections at weaning, rather than keeping more heifers than you need and letting nature sort them, first cull off any outliers—too big, too small, too tall. 
     
  • Heifers with “average” size and build usually end up being your best and most fertile cows. Many producers make the mistake of keeping the biggest heifers and end up with cows that are too large.
     
  • Choose the older heifers, not the biggest. Those born early in the calving period had fertile mothers. Choosing heifers born from the first or second cycle puts more emphasis on fertility and keeps your calving interval tight. Younger heifers born later in the calving season have less time to mature enough to have a cycle or two before breeding time.
     
  • Evaluate disposition and cull any that are flighty or nervous. Some of those wild ones are obvious, but one way to check is to sort them quietly in an alley. Bring each heifer to the other end alone to see how it responds to being handled by itself. If you push her, almost any heifer will try to get away, but when you back off it’s easy to see if she settles down or stays wild and scared.
     
  • Evaluate feet and leg structure and general conformation. Any problems you can see in a weanling will probably get worse as they mature. Pick heifers that look feminine rather than blocky, coarse and masculine. You don’t want a heifer that looks like a steer; her endocrine balance may be off and there’s more chance she’ll come up open. 
     
  • You also don’t want a heifer that’s extremely long-necked or too short-necked, which makes her look like a male. Many people pick their biggest, most muscular heifers but this leads to bigger-framed cattle that are not as fertile.
     
  • You want easy-fleshing cattle, but this is harder to evaluate at weaning because a fat heifer may have a dam that milked too well. The dam may be thin. 
     
  • It’s easier to evaluate a heifer’s fleshing ability after her first winter, before her first breeding season. A heifer going into breeding season without enough fat won’t breed and probably won’t last in a difficult environment. She’ll fall apart when she’s lactating and raising a calf.
     
  • Evaluate the dam. Are her feet and udder sound? Does mom have good temperament? Do you have production records and weights on her calves? Has she had a calf every year? You don’t know what a heifer out of a first calver will be like, but you have an idea about calves from a 10-year-old cow that’s always been fertile and has good calves.
     
  • Udder structure is hard to judge on weanlings or yearlings, but you’ll find outliers that are obviously undesirable, such as heifers with teats that will be too long or fat. 
     
  • There are many things you can’t tell about the heifer’s potential without evaluating her mother. Choose daughters from cows that have produced for several years and haven’t missed a calf—calving early every year.  
     
  • If you are making your decisions after they’ve gone through winter, select heifers that shed quickest. This is an indicator of health and vitality. A highly productive, feminine, fertile heifer will be one of the first to shed in the spring, and has a soft, smooth hair coat compared to a male.
     
  • Some producers palpate and measure pelvic width in heifers, since some females don’t have a very wide birth canal. Selecting heifers with adequate pelvic size prevents calving issues and you could also detect something abnormal like a bone spur. You can often tell if heifers have adequate width through the pins just by looking at them but measuring them after they reach puberty can be helpful.
     
  • There should also be adequate slope from hooks to pins. This is one of the most important factors for ease of calving, but often overlooked by cattle breeders.All wild ungulates (elk, deer, moose, bison, etc.) have a sloping rear end. Cattle that are level from hooks to pins have a serious man-made fault.
     
  • Many producers also tend to choose cattle that are straight in the hind leg, but this is unnatural. All wild animals are cow-hocked and have some angle to the hock joint when viewed from the side, which is stronger structure than straight hind legs or post-legged. We need to copy Mother Nature. A straight hind leg changes the angle of the leg, rotating the pin. When the hooks and pins are level, the hind legs are straight—construction that often won’t hold up—and changes the angle of the pelvis. This makes it more difficult for the calf to come up through it in a natural arc. The calf’s feet tend to jam up against the backbone and tail head. 
     
  • Lack of slope and smaller birth canal also makes drainage from the reproductive tract more difficult. The short tail head also moves the anus forward, with vulva tipped forward. Like a “windsucking” mare, fecal material falls into the vagina. Many of these sharp-tailed, level-pinned cows come up open or are harder to calve. If there is adequate slope, the birth canal is more open and has more room.

Next week, Part 2 will look at management considerations for your replacement heifers.

Smith Thomas is a rancher and freelance writer based in Salmon, Idaho.

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