by: Clifford Mitchell

Finding common ground when it comes to developing the next generation of productive cows has always been a challenge for the beef industry. Emphasis placed on selection rather than development, in some cases, throws off the balance of this delicate time in a heifer's life. Today, the industry finds itself in quandary few if any have experienced over the years. Record prices for feeder calves and the value for replacement females entering the vast unknown.

Placing the proper value on replacement females has been a limiting factor in some operations, not paying close enough attention to what those females owe the operation the moment they move from the feeder pen to being designated as a keeper. Firms that purchase this vital asset have had a little better handle from a value perspective, but sometimes still fall down when it's time to take the necessary steps to help her reach the full profit potential.

“Operations that purchase heifers are better able to calculate breakevens. Those operations that retain females should have a better understanding of the commitment they are making because calf prices are high and for some there is an opportunity cost for keeping her,” says Dr. Matt Hersom, Extension Beef Specialist, University of Florida.

“In the past, I don't think some operations have given appropriate consideration to what it costs to retain a heifer. High calf prices make us take notice of how much we're giving up keeping her,” says Dr. Justin Rhinehart, Beef Cattle Specialist, University of Tennessee.

“Producers have to accurately value those heifers if they decide to keep them, because their value at weaning is a lot more in the current state of the industry,” says Dr. Karl Harborth, Beef Extension Specialist, LSU AgCenter.

Investing in the future of the operation should lead producers to project future profitability. Replacement females, retained or purchased, are a valuable commodity. Knowing this value may put a whole new perspective on heifer development.

“Price levels of feeder cattle may force some operations to sell those calves and purchase bred heifers,” Rhinehart says. “Either way, knowing their value will force most operations to take better care of these females so they don't lose them after that first or second calf.”

“Producers should have a true appreciation of what it takes to keep heifers,” says Hersom. “Hopefully, this will translate into better management through the development process into young cow management.”

Each operation approaches replacement females in a different fashion, sharpening the pencil to answer the age old question if it's better to raise or buy these needed components. Outfits that rely on purchased females could be in for somewhat of a surprise and knowing the dynamics of supply and demand could help lessen the impact of “sticker shock” when purchasing these females.

“The challenge for producers to grasp “sticker shock” is something we all face. If producers are going to buy females they need to know what it costs to raise one,” Hersom says. “If we're going to buy a quality product, we need to know that we're going to have to pay what the market demands.”

“Getting past the thought process of what we paid for heifers last year will be a challenge for some operations,” Harborth says. “Those heifers are going to be worth more than years past and should have more value to the operation if you take care of them.”

“Replacements are a foundation for future profitability as long as we select good genetics,” Rhinehart says. “Bought or raised, even with high dollar calves, by the time you figure maintenance costs those females are going to be five or six years old before you breakeven.”

Developing heifers has always come at an extra cost to the operation. These females need extra nutrition and high costs of production make this an even more delicate balance to get them to be productive members of the cow herd.

“We have known all along how important getting that heifer off to a good start after we get her weaned is to future productivity. Producers have to take care of those heifers because the goal is to make her a productive part of the cow herd. Select those females that were born in the first third of the calving season because they usually will breed up at the front end of the breeding season,” Rhinehart says. “When those heifers calve the first time, you have to protect that investment. Real world sustainability begins with proper development and those heifers will stay in the cow herd.”

“The day you decide to keep her doesn't magically make her a valuable replacement. Producers need to be prepared for a couple year investment, because these heifers have different needs than the rest of the cow herd,” Hersom says. “Some producers are limited with only so much space or can create so many rations, but you have to treat these females right and adapt them into the management system. Don't treat them with kid gloves, but the worst thing you can do is turn them out with the cow herd.”

Defining goals for the operation is an important tool to start the development process. Understanding the value of today's replacement females is a great place to start. Nurturing that investment until it pays dividends involves many tools.

“Managing that investment whether you buy or retain is an ongoing thing. These heifers need to achieve a certain body weight by the time they are old enough to breed and that usually means they need to gain somewhere between a pound and two pounds per day. Producers have to be aware of her protein and energy requirements to achieve desired results,” Hersom says. “Developing that heifer could require a lot of short term goals. Grow her, get her bred and still have to grow her closer to expected mature weight. Once I do this, I have to get her calved out, maintain body condition score (BCS) post partum and get her bred back, get that calf weaned and calve her again before I introduce her to the mature cow herd.”

“It is almost a chain reaction if you develop that heifer the right way. Getting her to 65 percent of her mature weight at breeding leads to her calving at a 5+ or 6 BCS and the critical point is getting her bred back for that second calf,” Rhinehart says. “Have a plan, follow it methodically and stay focused on the goal. This is so important to her longevity and one little mistake can cause a lot of problems.”

“There are many proven systems such as target weights and BCS that help give producers an incentive to develop heifers the right way. Some genetics, particularly bos indicus, females take a little different approach than counterparts because these proven systems need to be tweaked a little from the management side to achieve desired results,” Harborth says. “The biggest problem I see is producers neglect those two year olds when they calve. It costs us more money than ever if we lose these females after their second, third or even fourth calf.”

High feed prices will have operations scrambling for alternatives or other means to achieve desired results in the development process. Many alternatives are available; unfortunately some of these options require a higher degree of experience from the management side. Ultimately, producers have to figure out what produces the best outcome. Achieving healthy, productive cows comes is attached to a price tag.

“If you hedge or skimp on the heifer development program it will catch up with you,” Rhinehart says. “If you have a lot of young females cycling out of the herd, it would have been cheaper to take care of them.”

“Sometimes we get caught in the trap feeding what we think is a good ration and the cattle aren't gaining what we need them to gain. Developing her economically calls on several things to get the job done correctly,” Hersom says. “Knowing what the cost of gain is will help you meet your goals in a cost effective manner. I have to spend enough to achieve my target weights or BCS goals. Shorting her up front may not help meet long term goals. You end up culling too many young cows and relying on some older maybe less productive cows.”

Herd health is an obvious tool in the realm of heifer development. Raised heifers may come at an advantage if there is a solid program in place. Purchased heifers should come with a history.

“Routine cow herd health management will get raised replacements off on the right foot. A schedule that includes de-worming and pre-breeding vaccinations is probably already in place,” Hersom says. “If you buy heifers expect to be given a health management background. This will let you know if these heifers need follow-up vaccinations and its easy information for the seller to provide to make sure the buyer is satisfied with the purchase.”

“When you buy heifers health should be equally as important as genetic records. You need as much information as possible for what bred heifers are going to cost,” Rhinehart says. “Know how they were developed and their performance, what bull they are bred too and vaccination history down to the product and lot number on that vaccine bottle if you can. A tract score is good information to have when you purchase open heifers. When a producer takes the time to have a BVDPI or a trich test, it should tell you you're buying from a good outfit.”

The science of developing heifers may not have changed much with the new price structure, but understanding the value of these heifers could redefine the importance of the investment in the future of the cow herd. Positioning these heifers for future success will paint the profit picture for years to come.

As the industry moves to a new price designation and faces supply challenges, appropriately valuing and developing these females will come to the forefront. The desire to keep these females in production has always been a goal, but increased costs and value components may redefine the investment made in the future of the operation.

“With costs at the current level it is more important to look at everything we do. Good managers look at the cost benefit ratio and we're raising these heifers to be productive cows,” Harborth says. “Producers will have more invested in these females, which creates the potential for greater losses, but it also positions you for greater reward.”

“With current input costs we have to become better business men, not just good cattlemen,” Rhinehart says. “Be methodical, put everything on a calendar. If you get rained out, you may have to do something on another day, but still get it done to follow the plan. The goal is to make that heifer a productive part of the cow herd where she's always working and doesn't give you a reason to cull her.”

“Short term goals to achieve the long term goals make a plan of action a lot easier to put in place. The long term goal is to set up a production unit to cover her costs/ breakeven as quickly as possible,” Hersom says. “If you build her correctly she will pay you back and put money in your pocket over a period of time. As valuable as those girls are, the last thing you can afford them to be is one calf and done.”

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