A fine-looking heifer calf represents the future of a ranching operation, and for producers in a position to do so, now is a good time to add more to their herds.
Drought, high calf prices, high cow prices and other economic factors have driven an extended liquidation phase in U.S. herds, pushing beef-cow numbers to lows not seen since the 1960s. These short numbers, coupled with strong domestic and international beef demand, signal high calf and yearling prices in the years ahead and suggest herd expansion will pay.
For many producers, purchased bred heifers or pairs can offer the most convenient choice for upgrading genetics while concentrating time and labor on cows and calves. But for producers who retain heifers from their own herds, efficiency and fertility are critical.
University of Nebraska beef reproductive specialist Rick Funston has conducted extensive research on management systems for developing heifers. While nutrition and body condition leading up to breeding and calving are critical for initial conception and breed-back, Funston's research shows that timing of gain in heifers also plays a role.
Conventional wisdom, for example, holds that heifers should reach about 65 percent of mature weight by first breeding. Research has shown, though, that first-calf heifers can achieve acceptable conception rates at 55 percent of mature weight, provided they are gaining weight and condition at breeding. This concept allows lower-cost, forage-based inputs including winter crop residues or dormant grass. Access to green grass in the spring helps heifers gain condition prior to breeding.
In Funston's trials comparing heifers developed in two systems, one group spent 193 days in a drylot while another spent 135 days grazing corn stalks through the winter, followed by a 59-day drylot period prior to breeding. The cornstalk heifers weighed an average of 110 pounds less than drylot heifers at breeding but outgained them during pre-breeding backgrounding and on grass through the period between breeding and calving. Final pregnancy rates were 89 percent for cornstalk heifers versus 92 percent for drylot heifers. By calving time, the cornstalk heifers averaged just 38 pounds lighter than the drylot heifers, and the cornstalk heifers saved $70 per head or more in development costs.
Even in years when drylot heifers had better conception rates than the low-input heifers, lower costs help compensate for the difference. Also, Funston says, the open heifers can generate good profits sold as feeder cattle, as development costs are low and their lighter condition makes them more desirable than fleshier heifers.
Home-raised heifers can offer advantages to producers who have the resources to develop them, but for others, purchased heifers can reduce labor and expense while upgrading genetics, whether for a terminal-cross system or for maternal traits.
Ron Hoffman used to run a cow-calf operation but says he struggled to find replacement heifers that fit his need for good performance and fertility, and he saw a niche for developing high-quality heifers to sell to area producers.
Hoffman and his wife Sharon run Hoffy's Heifers near Bayard, Neb. The couple purchases heifer calves from known sources around western Nebraska during the fall and backgrounds them to breeding weight. "With proper bull selection and feeding," Hoffman says, "we can get them bred and in good condition to breed back."
Some rancher customers, Hoffman says, just don't have the manpower, feed or facilities to raise, breed and calve their own first-calf heifers, and purchasing helps avoid those time and financial investments while upgrading their genetics.
The Hoffmans breed the heifers through artificial insemination, using top AI sires selected for low birthweights, disposition and maternal traits, and cleanup bulls selected for the same traits from the progeny of those AI sires. The Hoffmans sell some bred heifers and calve out some for sale as pairs.
Hoffman works with his customers to profile the type of heifers each wants, depending on their environment, management system and marketing, such as whether they sell calves at weaning or retain ownership through finishing. Some heifers can fit multiple systems, he says, but his efforts help customers fine-tune the genetic traits in their cow herds. Some customers purchase heifers for terminal-cross programs. Others retain some of their own heifers and use their purchased heifers as benchmarks for selecting from their own heifer calves.
Hoffman strives to keep feed costs low while providing heifers with the nutrition they need for good reproduction. He starts the weaned heifer calves on a high-roughage diet using oat hay, beet pulp and minerals. Beginning around Jan. 1, they graze on corn stalks, stockpiled grass or mixed cover crops such as rye and turnips. He provides protein and mineral supplements as needed, especially during cold, snowy weather. This grazing period, he says, teaches the heifers how to forage for food on their own, training them for self-sufficiency through their reproductive years. "We try to limit use of harvested feeds," he says.
After at least 60 days on forage, he brings the heifers in for about 30 days of backgrounding in a drylot, feeding oat hay, alfalfa and corn earlage prior to synchronization and AI. Breeding takes place around May 1, and following insemination, they go to grass.
"We used to just eyeball the heifers and cull on disposition, appearance and reproductive performance," Hoffman says. But when DNA testing became available, he decided to take selection a step further, applying the Igenity DNA profile tailored specifically for commercial replacement heifers. The heifers and pairs he's sold this year were the first to include the DNA profile, but he believes it will reduce trial and error and speed up genetic progress.
When customers come for heifers, he'll sort off a pen that fits their profile based on the DNA test, and let the customers pick the ones they want based on physical characteristics.
Calve early, calve often
Nutrition, genetics and timely estrus synchronization can help assure that heifers conceive early in the breeding season and calve early in the calving season. Starting and keeping heifers on that early cycle pays sizable dividends over the life of a female. Funston says it takes the profit from two early calving cows to cover the loss from one late-calver. A cow that calves in the first 21-day calving interval throughout her eight- to nine-year life will produce the weaning-weight equivalent of one-and-a-half to two additional calves in her lifetime compared to one that starts late and stays late.
Weaning weights aren't the only benefit. University of Nebraska research shows that steer calves born during the first 21 days of calving finish at heavier weights, produce more Choice carcasses and have higher average carcass value than those born later. Heifer progeny born during that first 21-day period have greater pregnancy rates and are more likely to deliver their first calf early in the calving season.
John Maddux, at Maddux Cattle Co., a 2,500-cow commercial operation in western Nebraska, pursues that very goal. Speaking at a heifer conference in September, Maddux said he focuses on reducing the depreciation costs in the cow herd, in part by controlling the cost of heifer development and by tightening calving intervals.
Maddux outlined how his family uses an approach similar to that tested in Funston's research, raising heifers on forage and winter crop residue. They retain almost all their heifer calves through the winter, only culling those that do not fit their size and fitness requirements. They manage the heifers essentially the same as steers, on winter corn stalks and forage, and synchronize and breed them the next summer for April calving. At pregnancy checking, they use fertility as a decision tool, keeping the heifers that conceive on time to calve early, as they work toward a 25-day calving season for first-calf heifers.
Open heifers go to the feedyard, and he says, pre-finishing costs similar to yearling steers and excellent potential for compensatory gains enhance their profitability.
* For more information on the Hoffman heifer operation, visit their website at www.hoffysheifers.com.
* The University of Nebraska offers heifer research summaries in its Beef Reports at http://beef.unl.edu, and calving-frequency data, synchronization protocols and Applied Reproductive Strategies in Beef Cattle proceedings at www.beefrepro.info.
* Colorado State University provides a decision support tool for comparing the cost of purchased heifers with home-raised heifers at www.ansci.colostate.edu.