by: Clifford Mitchell

During rebuilding years, most team sports are forced to play athletes who may not be ready to assume the role or players that lack talent to compete at that level. Building blocks set in place during the recruiting process should bring in qualified replacements that have the ability to step in and perform. These programs often reload, they do not rebuild.

Cattlemen and coaches have a lot in common. Proper selection and use of all the tools available will help producers always have top replacements to come into the herd. Selecting and developing heifers is much the same process a coach goes through when looking for new recruits. That coach, like the cowboy, will set goals and parameters of where they need to be, the first step in the selection process.

“Individual producers need establish a goal of what they are trying to accomplish. Look for your goal in that heifer pen and try to select your replacements,” says Dr. Karl Harborth, Louisiana State University.

“I am looking for cattle that will maintain body condition score (BCS) on forage. Since we're a seedstock operation I have to look at DNA profiles, Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs) and pedigree,” says Dr. Michael Bishop, General Manager 7L Farms, Wiggins, Mississippi.

“We expect a lot from replacement heifers and the selection process is critical. The cow type that works in your country gives us a good heifer model,” says Eric Brast, Texas Christian University Ranch Management program.

Different outfits work on different schedules during the selection process. Many models will work when things like environment, management and production goals are factored into the equation. Producers will fine tune the system that works for their operation.

“I am going to make a quick sort at weaning. I'll remove that bottom 10 percent to background and feed. We'll take a hard look at heifers that have fallen out of favor due to pedigree, EPDs and their mother has udder problems or didn't milk enough,” Bishop says. “I have to look for balanced EPDs for our environment and we're incorporating more and more DNA technology. I am trying to sort cattle at birth. The quicker I can make those decisions the more efficiently I can manage the operation.”

“From a cash flow standpoint, take the bottom half of those heifers and sell them at weaning. There will be a cost the longer you keep those heifers,” Brast says. “Look at how many heifers you need and keep a few extra. There are already extra costs to get the factory. Take a common sense approach and evaluate phenotype to go with the measurements.”

“Each individual needs to work with the selection tools and their criteria. The more records you have on the cow herd will help in the selection process. Some times you can pick heifers historically,” Harborth says. “Each producer will have a different system. A lot may depend on how the steer mates are marketed and the resources he has. Typically if he holds and backgrounds those steers for a little while he'll keep the heifers and grow them out a little too.”

The debate whether it's more affordable to purchase or develop replacements will never be solved. Cattlemen on both sides of the fence have valid arguments. Most producers who raise replacements do not have a good handle on costs associated with development.

“There are a lot of costs to include with heifer development. Many people discount what it costs to get her into production and how many calves she owes to pay for her raising,” Brast says. “Economics sometimes says buying heifers makes a little more sense. Interest costs or depreciation need to be included in those development costs.”

“Replacement costs are high. If I was a totally commercial outfit, I would have to look at buying replacements and put the pencil to it. From weaning until the time she is pregnant that heifer costs me $2 per day,” Bishop says. “She owes me about 2.5 calves before she can pay me back. Longevity is everything and we have to develop heifers to have long productive lives.”

Dollars and cents look good in an accounting ledger. Producers are always looking for hard core values that are easily figured. What about the intangibles? Often times it is this evaluation which separates that coach from his peers. Cattlemen have to develop the same keen sense even though assigning a value to things like adaptability, heat tolerance and fleshing ability is somewhat elusive.

“There are a lot of things we can't see until that heifer has her first calf. The longer you keep heifers in a system the more you will learn,” Harborth says. “Raising your own heifers in certain environments makes a lot of sense because there are some traits that are hard to evaluate from the financial side.”

“In the deep south cattle have to be able to handle the heat. In our limited studies here at the ranch, we have found there is a lot of genetic variation in heat tolerance,” Bishop says. “We place a lot of emphasis on hair coat. I score every heifer for shedding and sometimes this will move her from the replacement pen to the feedyard. It's hard to put a dollar figure on this selection criterion, but it's very important to us and our customer base. This data can be combined with things like feed efficiency and BCS to make sound economic decisions.”

Accurately assigning the costs to development could show the path to the future and the type of cattle that need to be selected.

“Look for the breed of cattle that works best in your environment and this will help selection from an initial cost standpoint. Like any other enterprise on the ranch producers have to do a good job assigning costs,” Brast says. “At weaning if she's pointed toward the replacement pen assign her a value and then re-evaluate that figure as she moves from one production phase to the next.”

Developing replacements is definitely a specialty position in the beef industry. Producers with this ability can lower development costs marketing heifers to other producers.

“We're very strict on these heifers. We usually produce more replacements than we need,” Bishop says. “We'll develop those quality females and sell them in a specialized market for a premium.”

“Economically it's hard to develop heifers,” Brast says. “If you have that ability, keep extras and sell them for added value.”

Once the heifers have been selected for the replacement pen, early management will have a lot of impact on the future. Proper care is almost an art form with heifer development. Each step is vital to that female becoming a productive member of the cow herd.

“The main thing, early in the development phase we don't need to get her fat. Keep her growing, allow her to stretch out that skeleton,” Brast says. “A lot of folks like to see those heifers fat, slick and shiny, which is the ultimate target, but grow her body before you get her too fat.”

“I would recommend this group be kept separate and managed to your development specifications. The target should be 65 percent of mature weight when they are ready to breed,” Harborth says. “It doesn't matter how you get there as long as you reach the target. Winter cereals work well to grow these heifers on forage. It boils down to whatever system works best and is the most efficient for the operation.”

“I target a 1.5 pound per day gain on good forages with minimal supplementation. We'll take a hard look at the heifers that won't do that and they are definitely candidates to be removed from the program,” Bishop says. “We try to have them on a good mineral program because this is vital to ovarian development. I have to match supplementation with the forage cycle and I wish I could cheat that cycle a little.”

Nutrition and health programs by design are part of successful operations. Genetics may be the star and get all the hype, but without a training table and a good wellness program those genetic specimens may never reach potential.

“A good health program is critical. I use modified live vaccines (MLV). Targeting a 1.5 to 2 pound per day gain I feel like I am meeting their nutritional needs for maintenance and growth,” Bishop says. “I lose nutritional value in my forages in late August or early September and they won't have a lot of nutritional value until December. My goal is to breed heifers in late November or early December so I have to supplement these heifers. I am not trying to feed a lot of grain, but they need energy to keep moving forward. I work hard to find the most economical feed stuffs to keep costs in check.”

“Costs are the main enemy in replacement heifer development. Producers who have a cheap forage base will get a long well. It's hard to feed heifers a lot of grain at this point in their development,” Brast says. “If her health is straight and she has been on a good mineral program she should start cycling and be ready to breed at the proper time. I prefer to let heifers have a natural cycle, although most operations synchronize heifers. Labor concentrated on calving those heifers in a short time period may be a better excuse to calve those heifers in a short time frame than economics or selection.”

“Make sure you check with your veterinarian and get those heifers on a good vaccination and de-worming program so they are managed properly from a health standpoint. Use the tools available to get them to a certain weight. Don't feed heifers a lot of high concentrate feeds,” Harborth says. “If your target is 2 pounds per day rather than 1.5, you will probably have to supplement them a little. Producers could benefit if they are in a position to weigh those heifers from time to time when they are performing other management tasks like de-worming.”

Much like the incoming freshman, replacement heifers have many obstacles. Constant evaluation and performance check-ups are used to make sure the firm is not wasting precious resources on females that will fall out of the program.

“Our target is to breed at 14 months of age. We'll start scoring cycling when they turn year of age to make sure they are ready. Every replacement candidate is tract scored before we start the process,” Bishop says. “I can't afford to keep spending a lot of money on cattle that don't work. Some of these goals are in place because we try to time things where cattle that don't work can still fit into the market system.”

“I recommend producers take a pelvic measurement and do some tract scoring on replacement candidates,” Brast says. “Margins are getting smaller and smaller and this is good information to have if she's a borderline cull.”

Developing heifers is a tedious task. Most do not like to read instruction manuals, but the delicate nature of replacements requires producers to “study their lesson.” Due diligence must taken to get these heifers right.

“A couple years ago when inputs went through the roof, we didn't take care of the heifers and it costs us a lot more now than if we would have done it right. We had a lower percentage getting bred and those heifers also have a lower retention rate,” Bishop says. “It's a whole lot cheaper if you take care of them, because if you don't you'll end up paying later. Paying later usually costs more.”

“A lot of the things we can vaccinate for affect reproductive efficiency. It's a great insurance policy. There are so many little things we can do that save a lot in the long run,” Harborth says. “We're doing everything we can to get her bred and retain her in the herd. Following all the little steps is no guarantee but it should be better than average. If heifers aren't the right age, have good nutrition and health, they won't cycle.”

The goal of every cattleman is just like that coach, if these replacements or recruits are successful, the future of the program will burn bright. Resources will be allocated to accomplish the long term goal of making these replacements solid producing members of the program and those resources often come at a premium.

If mistakes occur either through selection, development or resource allocation the program will suffer set backs for many years to come, which could lead to that coach or cow/calf operator getting fired. Protecting the future of the program boils down to those willing to make the proper selection, find a management system that works and being able to balance the budget so development costs do not sacrifice production goals.

“Health program, age and nutrition are keys to getting the number one goal accomplished. Getting them bred and in the herd,” Harborth says. “If we don't get them bred, we can't put them in the herd.”

“There are fundamental steps in the growth and development of that female that you just can't short change,” Bishop says. “If you short change and abuse them during development, you will pay for it either reproductively or maternally.”


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