Developing replacement heifers |

Developing replacement heifers

Beef Specialist, University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension Center
Ivan G. Rush |

The cattle industry continues to face challenges as the value of calves declines and costs stay high. This is troubling as we see cow numbers decrease slightly in the U.S. indicating we should see fewer calves available for sale plus currently corn prices has decreased considerably. Many calves have been or are soon to be weaned leaving producers asking if they want to retain heifers for replacements. Much has been written and questions have been asked if it is better to develop your own replacements or buy them. Discussions bring up the cost of developing versus the cost of purchasing a two year bred heifer.

Many feel they can’t buy as good of heifers as they are raising while other intentionally go out and buy reputation heifers to improve the genetics of their herd. I have always felt that if you were using breeds and lines of cattle that provided good maternal traits it was usually advisable to develop your own heifers unless you are in an area where feed costs are expensive and limited. Obviously, some herds that use terminal cross bulls would not want to keep heifers that were not designed to be good maternal cows.

University of Nebraska agriculture economists estimate that if you value a weaned heifer at $750 (which would be high on today’s market), it will cost about $500 to develop her the next 17 months putting her value at $1,250. In the past several years this is about what two year old bred heifers have been selling for, some less and some higher. If replacement heifers are retained every effort needs to be pursued to see if the development cost can be decreased.

The projections from the UNL economists assume the heifer needs to weigh 800-850 pounds or about 65 percent of the cows’ mature weight. Although this has been routinely recommended relative new research at the UNL Gudmundsen Sandhill Laboratory has indicated that perhaps heifers do not need to be this heavy at breeding in order to have excellent reproductive and lifetime performance.

Much is discussed and considerable research has been conducted on the appropriate gain for replacement heifers. I often hear figures like 1.5 to two pounds daily gain but lets calculate what the heifer will weigh if she gains 1.5 pounds daily after weaning to breeding. Let’s assume she weans at 550 pounds and we intend to breed her about 200 days later. That means she would gain 300 pounds or weigh 850 pounds, when exposed to the bull. If we can be assured a high lifetime cow breeding and performance by having her weigh 750 pounds at bull exposure (actually the GSL heifers weighed less) then we only need one pound of gain per day. On the surface this may not seem like much of a difference, but the heifer diet may be considerably different. This allows us to winter graze the heifer either on good quality winter range or crop residues along with a supplementation program that would provide adequate protein plus some additional energy. Admittedly, winter range or crop residues do have a cost plus some weather risk must be assumed but in most cases it will be cheaper then feeding all harvested feeds.

Ration calculation can be made with various assumptions on quality and quantity of grazed forages, however often times 2-4 pounds of a 20 percent protein supplement will support close to one pound of gain if there is plenty winter forage available. Meadow aftermath often provides excellent grazing for replacement heifers and if it is available then only the lower level of supplementation would be required.

As in any cattle production practice, the eye of the master is still extremely important. Considerable research has indicated it may not be important how the heifer ultimately reaches the target weight. If heifers are grazed on winter forage and they are not gaining at an appropriate level they can be fed to increase body weight prior to bull exposure. If the target weight is met their reproduction performance will still be high. This has some advantages in that the development cost can be relatively low during a large part of the winter and if needed some compensatory gain can be utilized in late winter or early spring when the heifers most likely will be in confinement. Also the heifer will be in an inclining plane of nutrition which may aid in early conception.

In going over calculations I believe development cost can be decreased at least $100 without sacrificing heifer breeding performance or long time cow longevity.

Hope all will go well for you at weaning.

email ivan rush at

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