Filling the Void: How to choose replacement heifers that will pull their weight
October 18, 2017
A lot of factors play into the herd replacement strategy, not the least of which is heritage. For many people, it's impossible to put a dollar value on adding heifers to the herd that come from a known lineage. But in tight times, when controlling costs becomes the number one priority, putting a dollar value on each step of the process is vital.
Even with the cheapest and most efficient developing strategies, the cost of growing these females can be significant. Jake Tiedeman and his family in North Platte, Nebraska, own and operate Baldridge-Tiedeman Angus. The Tiedemans pride themselves on raising high quality females and selling reputable seedstock bulls.
"When making decisions on whether to keep replacement heifers and when to sell them, you have to take a pencil to it and decide what you are going to be able to afford and make manageable," said Tiedeman.
The Tiedeman family takes a gradual funnel approach when deciding what to cull and what to keep. "As a purebred herd, we have to keep many of our females and selling them all is not usually a viable option. We have too many years of planned breedings to sell them; it's our genetics that we need to keep building upon to sell good cattle," said Tiedeman.
The Tiedemans begin their process at birth and the first culling decision happens at weaning. "If a heifer comes in poor at weaning, we take a pretty long look at the cow family and production records," said Tiedeman. Understanding why a heifer performed more poorly than her contemporaries is a must. "We look at weight and performance during weaning and also phenotype because there is no need for us to invest in a low quality female. But we study the cow too; it might be time for her to go."
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Phase two for the Tiedeman selection process comes with winter. "We get pretty hard on any feet and leg problems and remove those cattle from the group. Another stretch of time will go by and we measure pelvic sizes. Anything that is too small goes on her way," said Tiedeman.
The strictest cut occurs after the remaining heifers have spent the summer running with a bull. "We don't have any time for a female that does not get bred. If they are open or late bred, they are gone," said Tiedeman.
The Ochsner Ranch in Torrington, Wyoming raises Angus and Hereford cattle and uses a different process, but shares a similar view of open heifers. Katie Ochsner is the commercial marketing specialist for the Red Angus Association and is also heavily involved in the family operation. "We do not make any culling decisions until the females have had a chance to get bred and run with a bull. But we don't like to give too many chances, and prefer a tight calving interval, so we have no time for cattle that are open," said Ochsner. "We watch these females really closely throughout their lives in the development process, being extra hard on feet and leg structure as well as pigment and udder quality. We want a high quality female to get put back in the herd."
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The Ochsner family doesn't just write off those open or late heifers—they target them at a value-added market. "We raise seedstock cattle and stand behind their quality, so often times we try and market these open females to those people utilizing a fall calving program," said Ochsner. Recognizing every opportunity to maximize the dollars returned to the operation is what establishes long term success. Tiedeman said, "The market is very strong for premium heifers; good ones still bring money."
As the commercial marketing specialist, Ochsner works with commercial cattle producers utilizing the Red Navigator gene testing program established by the Red Angus Association. "The Red Navigator program looks at 13 EPDs and 2 indices to help producers make the most informed culling and breeding decisions that they can," said Ochsner. Red Navigator is a percentile rank system that compares cattle to a commercial database ranking the EPDs from 1 to 100 with 1 being the best. "I study the strengths and weaknesses of a producer's cowherd on paper and discuss the results with them to figure out what goals they are trying to accomplish. Using Red Navigator gives producers a leg up when making culling decisions," said Ochsner. Tiedeman said, "EPDs and genomics are a great tool to help producers decide where they want their emphasis to be placed and guide them in the selection process."
Decisions in the tough years
Not all years are fruitful though and sometimes hard decisions have to be made. In 2016, the Ochsner family ranch was impacted by a large fire that burned many pastures, buildings, and almost all of their winter feed. "We had some tough decisions to make that year," said Ochsner. Usually the ranch buys back their bull customers' calves and develops them on their winter pasture. The Ochsners also purchase heifers as yearlings before developing them and selling them as breds in the fall. "In 2016 we had to cut out those two programs because we simply did not have the feed or the pasture to feed them. It was a tough call to make but it was one we had to do," said Ochsner.
"In tough times we have considered selling all or the majority of our heifers but have never actually been forced to do it. I think in extremes, things like a lack of feed or pasture, it makes sense to sell your heifers and repopulate your herd as it becomes feasible," said Tiedeman.
In her conversations this summer with beef cattle producers, Ochsner has heard those very extremes. "I have talked to a lot of producers who are very discouraged and disgusted about having to sell their heifers and do more culling this year. It is unfortunate, but they have realized in a tough year like this they simply do not have the means to get it done," said Ochsner.
Deciding to keep replacement heifers, and how many if so, is not something cattlemen take lightly. They know they have to make choices. As Tiedeman said, "Average heifers follow the market, but good ones bring money!"