High on heifers

High on heifersAt a Missouri Show-Me-Select heifer sale in Fruitland, Mo., this spring, the top heifer sold for $3,400, and the 157 heifers sold averaged a record $2,170. Thirty of the bred heifers sold for $2,500 or more.

The sale results illustrate a couple of key trends in the cow-calf business. First, demand for heifers is growing as producers respond to market signals by expanding or rebuilding their herds. Second, the prices indicate buyers are willing to pay premiums for heifers carrying verifications of their health and management histories and genetic backgrounds.

Several states offer similar heifer programs, which often are partnerships between state cattlemen's associations and universities. They typically provide health specifications, third-party verifications and value-added sales for replacement heifers, aiming to help producers earn premiums on heifers they sell and help buyers source top-quality, low-risk replacements. (See sidebar for a list of heifer programs.)

Details in the specifications vary somewhat from program to program, but they typically provide verification of a proven animal-health program, breeding records, genetics and weaning protocols.

The Show-Me-Select program began as a pilot project in two Missouri locations in 1996, with the first sales in 1997, says University of Missouri Extension beef specialist Dave Patterson, PhD. Since then, with support through the University of Missouri Extension, the program has expanded statewide. Over the ensuing years, over 700 farms have sold heifers through the program, and total heifer sales will reach a milestone of 100,000 head this year.

Missouri might have the longest-standing of these programs, but Wyoming recently became the latest state to join the list, with its "Wyoming Premium Heifer Program," jointly administered by the Wyoming Business Council and the University of Wyoming.

John Henn, livestock and meat marketing program manager with the Wyoming Business Council, manages the program along with University of Wyoming animal scientist Scott Lake, PhD.

Henn sees the program extending well beyond the Wyoming state line, expecting interest in Wyoming heifers from ranchers around the country. This summer he'll travel to Texas, Oklahoma and other locations to market the program at cattlemen's meetings and trade shows. Over the next few years, he expects ranchers in many areas will expand their herds or rebuild herds liquidated during the drought. The program will help them source top-quality genetics while helping Wyoming producers find a broader market for their heifers.

With that broad geography in mind, the program will hold Internet video sales on three dates and at two locations, allowing buyers to bid from anywhere. The first sale will take place in Torrington, Wyo., on Nov. 12, offering bred heifers. Three days later at the same location, the sale will offer replacement heifer calves.

The next Internet sale will take place on Jan. 9 in Buffalo, Wyo., offering bred heifers and replacement heifer calves. At each of the sales, sellers can submit video footage and sell heifers directly off the ranch. They also have the option to bring their heifers to the auction facility, giving local or distant buyers the opportunity to assemble loads from smaller lots of heifers.

Prior to the sales, the program managers will post offerings on the Wyoming Cattle Listing Service at Wyobeef.com. The website also includes all the program guidelines, forms and registration information.

Program specifications are similar to those for other premium heifer-marketing programs. Ranchers enrolling in the program must have Beef Quality Assurance certification. They pay a $3-per-head enrollment fee, which includes visual ear tags. Heifers need brucellosis tags and verification of a vaccination program including a full round of weaning vaccines and pre-breeding boosters. Heifer calves must be weaned a minimum of 45 days prior to delivery, and bred heifers need verification of a positive pregnancy test.

High on heifersThe program includes "Brown" and "Gold" levels. The basic specifications will qualify heifers for the Brown 1 level. The Gold 2 level includes all the requirements for Brown 1, plus the heifers must test negative for BVD persistent infections and be AI bred to known sires with direct calving-ease EPDs in the top 25 percent of the breed.

John Kinchen, who ranches with his wife Tana near Lusk, in eastern Wyoming, sees the program as an opportunity to build a premium market for his Red Angus heifers without changing much in his operation. Kinchen formerly was in the seedstock business, selling Red Angus bulls, but recently has shifted to commercial production with an emphasis on marketing replacement heifers.

Typically, he sells some heifer calves after weaning in the fall and keeps others over the winter for breeding along with his own replacements. He breeds heifers using AI around June 24, so they have been on green grass for about six weeks prior to breeding.

One change Kinchen says he'll make for the program is to wait a little longer to turn a cleanup bull in with the heifers after AI breeding. This will help him identify the AI-bred heifers that will qualify for the Gold 2 classification in the program.

Kinchen says he selects for calving ease, moderate milk and growth potential in calves. The family sells its steers after weaning, so he wants cattle that will grow well on native range. His steer weaning weights average about 630 pounds.

Patterson has observed a range of benefits to producers who have participated in the Show-Me-Select program over the years. One, he says, is that because of the verification requirements, the program has helped create stronger relationships between producers,

veterinarians and Extension personnel. Those relationships have helped producers improve overall health, genetics and reproductive performance within their herds. As they work to meet program standards, producers have seen improvements in the percentages of pregnancies early in the breeding season and rebreeding rates in 2-year-old females, and fewer calving problems. Use of AI has grown among participating producers. Many of these benefits extend to the steer calves producers sell, in addition to the heifers they market or retain for their own breeding herds.

Howard Early, of Crooks Farms in northwestern Missouri, has realized those benefits while participating in the Show-Me-Select program for 13 years. Early manages the cow-calf operation with co-owners Alvin and Doug Crooks. Over those years, changes he's made have benefi tted his own herd while also adding value to the heifers he sells.

One major change, he says, has been a much greater use of AI. He began using AI with replacement heifers back in 1998, and since then worked up to using estrus synchronization and timed AI with all cows and heifers in the herd that numbers about 400 head. All females are exposed to AI at least once before turning out cleanup bulls.

Genetic improvements have helped him build a reputation for premium heifers at the Show-Me-Select sales, and repeat buyers have driven the bidding on his cattle. He mentions one producer from Louisiana who purchased seven heifers in 2010 and returned to double his purchase in 2011, based on their health and performance.

Early also has seen benefits from an improved nutritional program for developing heifers. He hand-feeds hay and supplements from weaning until heifers are turned out with bulls, to ensure good body condition at breeding. Hand feeding also benefits their temperament, adding to their appeal at sale time.

He says this program has helped increase the number of heifers that become pregnant early in the breeding season, which in turn helps rebreeding rates in 2- and 3-year-olds and keeps females in the breeding herd longer. Cow-culling rates are down, and he credits early nutrition as one of the reasons. Most of his bred heifers go to market weighing 1,050 to 1,150 pounds, while most of the mature cows at Crooks Farms weigh between 1,100 and 1,300 pounds.

After years of participation, all the cows on the operation came through the Show-Me-Select program, and most are progeny of AI sires selected for the program.

Initially, Patterson says, the heifer-development systems on some of the participating farms were not particularly well planned or managed. The program becomes a great learning experience, helping producers improve their overall production systems.

Finally, the opportunity to market premium replacement heifers has created a whole new profit center for some ranchers, with excellent financial returns. Crooks Farms, for example, has sold 539 bred heifers though the program over 13 years. The average price over the entire span was $1,475 per head, with total returns of $800,000. With higher prices over the past four years, the seller averaged $1,590 per head for 278 heifers, with total returns of $430,000. Patterson says when the Crooks Farms heifers come up for auction, bidding "explodes" based upon their reputation, and Early believes the program adds $300 to $400 per head to the value of bred heifers at sale time.


State or regional heifer-marketing programs

Several state or regional heifer-marketing programs, often partnerships between state cattlemen's associations and universities, typically provide health specifications, third-party verifications and value-added sales for replacement heifers. They aim to help producers add value to heifers they sell and provide top-quality replacements for buyers.

Contact: David Sandusky, 270-692-1875

Contact: Teresa Steckler, 618-695-4917

Contact: Tim Dietrich, 502-564-4983

Contact: Jane A. Parish, 662-325-7466

Contact: Judy Burton, 573-882-7327

Contact: Kevin Laurent, 270-365-7541 ext 226

Contact: James D. Bostic, 304-472-4020

Contact: Dr. Scott Lake, 307-460-8129 or John Henn, 307-630-3562