by: Clifford Mitchell

Producers hit the bull sale scene looking for that next generation sire that will help advance the herd. Most are looking for a certain combination of traits that will get the job done. That new bull is always a big topic of conversation at the coffee shop as neighbors sometimes work to outshine each other. Cattlemen take good care of these bulls knowing what kind of impact the new sire could have for generations to come.

Most savvy cattlemen understand that herd bull is only half the equation. Introducing replacements, whether they are raised or bought, is often a delicate situation for most producers. This treasured commodity becomes a reality, for most, when the final sort has been made on that cut of heifers that shows the most promise. Producers make a pretty sound commitment and investment when the decision is made to keep a heifer.

“Once I make the decision to keep a heifer, I have to do my job and develop her so she will work. I am really hard on that group of virgin heifers because they don't have many excuses,” says Eddie Parker, Parker Angus Ranch, Waurika, Oklahoma.

“A producer can't quit developing heifers once they are bred. If he stops working, he will have a tough time getting those heifers bred back the second time,” says Dr. Jason Cleere, beef cattle extension specialist, Texas Agri-Life Extension Service.

“Proper development of those females has to continue until she weans her first calf. A lot of producers spend a lot of time and money getting them bred and calved out. It's important to continue that development and give these females an opportunity to be successful,” says Dr. Justin Rhinehart, beef cattle extension specialist, Mississippi State University.

First calf heifers have been a “thorn in the side” of producers for a long time. Even when these females are properly developed, some will not hold up their end of the bargain, which becomes frustrating to most managers. This group of females presents many challenges from a management standpoint. Preparation is the key to success with this collection of females.

“Push those heifers early so they will reach the target weight of 65 to 70 percent of their mature weight quicker. Breed these females to calve at least one heat cycle ahead of the cow herd,” Rhinehart says. “Two-year olds often bring down pregnancy rates if they aren't managed correctly. Prior to calving these females should weigh 80 to 90 percent of their mature weight. Calve them at a body condition score (BCS) 6.”

“We like to start calving these females at 21 to 24 months of age because the quicker I can get her into production the better it seems to work. I want to calve them at least 21 days if not 30 days before the mature cows. This gives these heifers a little more time post partum before we try to breed them,” Parker says. “I want them in good shape, but not fat when they start having babies. Once I get them calved out, if I do my job and keep her on a good plane of nutrition, odds are she'll breed back.”

“Heifers should weigh 85 to 90 percent of their mature weight and be a BCS 6 at calving. Cattle carrying a little extra condition have a little to give after they calve,” Cleere says. “Breed them early and try to have them calved out by the time they are 24 months of age at least three weeks ahead of the cow herd. Twenty one days is a long time when we start talking about getting heifers bred back and a BCS 6 gives them a buffer if these heifers lose a little condition adjusting to motherhood.”

Experience will lead operations to adapt specific protocol when dealing with certain groups. Some of these goals take in good animal husbandry practices, some are brought on by reaction or second guessing and some are just old “wives tales” that make it difficult for these heifers to do their job.

“Producers need to monitor these heifers from the time they are bred to make sure target weights and BCS goals are being met. Producers can't panic in the last 30 to 60 days and push these heifers real hard,” Cleere says. “You also hear producers talk about how they ‘starve' that calf out of her to avoid dystocia. If she's behind in her condition when she calves, you're going to have a hard time getting her bred back.”

“From preg check to the time that heifer calves at 80 to 90 percent of her mature weight she needs to gain about seven tenths of a pound per day. Around 80 to 100 pounds will improve a BCS. If producers wait too long and those heifers have to gain three pounds per day to hit the target, it's not economically feasible due to added feed costs. Much less what it can do to make calving her out a nightmare,” Rhinehart says. “Underfeeding prior to calving leads to a poorly conditioned heifer. You are not going to improve BCS when she's lactating and it will hurt pregnancy rate. Constantly adjust nutrition to make sure you hit target weights at the right time.”

Two-year olds go through a lot of changes after that first calf is born. Most operations understand the need for proper nutrition to help the continued development of these females into good working mothers.

“Look at your feed resources, identify high quality feed and save it for the first calf heifers. Some producers will put up high quality baleage just to feed this group. The higher quality feed will give them a little more energy. These females are milking and still trying to grow,” Rhinehart says. “You don't have to go out and spend money just to be spending it. Look around the farm see what you have available, it's likely good enough. Depending on your situation and climate, improved pastures or rye grass with different stocking rates could be a big help. Depending on the season, take advantage of high quality forages.”

“Those heifers just had a calf, they are still growing and milking. It's a difficult time in their life,” Cleere says. “The maintenance requirement alone is high for these females. Look at forage quality and/or supplementation. Anytime you can get them on high quality forages like rye grass or wheat it will help them continue to develop. Some producers identify the highest quality hay and feed it to these heifers to give them the best chance to breed back.”

Limited resources in the land and labor department also force a manager's hand from time to time. Most realize this group of first calf heifers needs a little extra attention, but sometimes, due to circumstance, these females must be co-mingled with the mature cows.

“If a producer is in a situation he can continue to keep these heifers isolated from the mature cows, there is a better chance to get them bred. Producers can give this group a little extra TLC if they need it and the nutrition will be going to the animals that need it the most,” Cleere says. “Group these females together until you get the first calf weaned.”

“Ideally, if I could keep those heifers separated I would, but I don't have that luxury,” Parker says. “This group of females deserves to be treated a little better than I do. Once they calve they are paired up and run with the mature cows. We do our best to get them on some good grass and I use some liquid feed to help cattle better utilize the forages.”

“Manage these heifers as a separate feed or pasture group. It is important to give them an opportunity,” Rhinehart says. “Some producers call this babying these cattle. If you don't give them the nutrition they need, I think some producers are paying an awful lot for natural selection. When first calf heifers are managed this way, keep those calves in one contemporary group when you wean them. You can start identifying some differences in genetics and how they perform.”

Acceptable breed back rates probably vary a little from ranch to ranch. Most outfits realize when there is a “train wreck” it has more to do with management than genetics. Careful evaluation of the development process will help answer a lot of questions.

“If you have managed your two-year olds correctly there is no reason they shouldn't have the same pregnancy rates as you get in the mature cow herd. If you have a lower breed back with first calf heifers then that's definitely a red flag, because they should breed up better than that,” Cleere says. “Low breed back can often be attributed to the nutrition program. Keep good records so you know what kind of condition those heifers were in when they calved. Bottom line if you have a problem getting these heifers bred back they probably weren't developed correctly or you had a lot of calving problems. Heifers that have to be assisted at birth will often be delayed cycling back.”

“We expect 70 to 80 percent breed back on our first calf heifers. If a first calf heifer doesn't breed I'll roll her over one time into the next calving season (spring or fall). She better breed on the first cycle to stay around,” Parker says. “I realize not every place in the world can calve in the spring and fall, but this does give me some flexibility. I can give these young females a second chance without carrying over an open cow too long. ”

“These heifers should breed back at the same rate as the mature cow herd, especially if they have had preferred forage or supplemental feed. If it's lower than that and we have done our work, it's time to start asking questions,” Rhinehart says. “If they run with the mature cows and don't get the extras, producers can be a little more forgiving. It's a breach of the “cattlemen's code” to give her another chance, but a lot of times we'll roll her one time and won't have any problems. We have to have good records so we know which females have had there second chance and can remove them if the fail again.”

Defined breeding and calving seasons will also help manage this group of females a little easier. Tighter calving intervals should help this group reach the operation's pregnancy rate goal. Early selection for fertility and reproductive efficiency should lead to a profitable future.

“We usually don't have any problems with the heifers that calve early, it's the ones that calve late in the season that don't breed back,” Parker says. “This is when the genetics start to shine through. You can see the differences in fleshing ability and you can tell the cattle that are out performing their counterparts. I'll AI those virgin heifers one time and then stick a bull with them in two weeks. The higher percentage I catch AI on the first cycle, it's usually a little easier to get them bred back the second time around.”

“Older heifers come from the cows that calve early in the calving season year after year,” Cleere says. “These heifers are usually a little more fertile. With proper management and selection these heifers should go on to be productive members of the cow herd.”

It has been documented time and time again the value of these replacements once they calve. To some this female is like a worker who borrowed money and will take time to work it off. For a lot of producers, that two-year old needs to have several more calves just to break even.

“I value longevity in a cow. As long as she breeds back and raises a good calf I am going to keep her. The cost of replacing her is so high. Not a lot of people realize the cost of keeping your own replacements. It's pretty high, especially if you try to take advantage of some really good genetics and provide extra management,” Parker says. “I have a substantial initial investment once I decide to keep her as a replacement I have to everything I can to make her work. If she's open when I wean that first calf, I can't recoup my investment, so I am willing to give her a second chance, unless there's a good reason for her to go to town, like a soundness problem or a poor udder.”

“When you put a pencil to it, this is a pretty valuable asset,” Rhinehart says. “We have to look at the economics when it comes time to make a keep or cull decision.      If you're practically giving her away and not maxed out on your stocking rates, I think you need to keep her and give her a second chance. At the same time, if we let her slide into the next calving season we aren't really selecting for reproductive efficiency. It's a tough situation, but if it's economically possible I would go ahead and remove her from the herd because she's reproductively inefficient. If you do keep her and she comes up open again, at least you've added weight and value to her.”

Most cattlemen look at only the cost of production with this group of future brood cows. In all reality, this is just half the equation. This group of females could inevitably be the highest valued group of females on the place.

In certain situations, the revenue generated from this group is significant to the bottom line. These “good earners” could be responsible for many success stories in the future. Proper development until the first calf is weaned could go along way to insuring the future of the operation.

“These younger replacements have a lot of value to the operation because they represent genetic advancement. If we don't take care of this resource we're not taking as big of a step forward as we should be,” Rhinehart says. “These females are revenue producers. They are a source of known genetics. Some of these females can be marketed for a premium as bred heifers if you don't need them. Producers are adding value to their herd through better genetics. Cost of production isn't the only loss most producers face when they fail to develop this resource correctly.”

“These females are our freshest and best genetics. I sell just as many bulls out of first calf heifers for a premium as any group on the ranch,” Parker says. “As I synchronize and mate them for their second calf this represents what our production goals are because I have a little more flexibility on which sires I can use. It costs a lot of money to get a heifer into production, but handled correctly they can be very good revenue generators.”


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