Ken Olson offers winter replacement heifer management tips
I read the column, “Reduce winter feed costs,” that Roger Gates wrote last week, and it provided a lot of great ideas to get value from the excess forage that was produced with the abundant precipitation that most folks received this year.
Basically, he pointed out that winter feed costs are the largest part of the annual cost of running a cow and winter grazing may be a viable way to dramatically reduce feed costs. This excess forage may provide an opportunity to reduce another major component of annual cow costs: cow depreciation.
Simply stated, cow depreciation is the cost of developing a heifer to replace the cow amortized over the life of the cow. This includes the value of the heifer calf that can’t be sold, and also includes feed, veterinary, breeding and other costs of owning the heifer from weaning until she produces a calf as a two-year-old. As you might expect, the largest cost in developing a heifer (other than her value) is the cost of feeding her for a year and a half (from weaning to first calf).
An option for producers with abundant forage available for winter grazing would be to keep all or most of the heifer calf crop and graze them through the winter. This delays the selection of the heifers chosen to be replacements until more information is available about who the best choices are (such as pregnancy status after breeding as yearlings). It can add value to the excess heifers that aren’t kept as replacements because they will basically have been overwintered and used as stockers the next summer.
Recent research conducted at the Antelope Range Livestock Research Station in northwest South Dakota along with research I did years ago in Kansas indicates that placing heifers back onto rangeland for grazing during the winter after weaning provides a number of benefits.
First, if provided appropriate supplementation, heifers can grow adequately to reach puberty and become pregnant as yearlings.
Second, winter grazing will greatly reduce winter feed costs compared to placing the heifers in drylot and feeding harvested feeds. Winter grazing does require supplementation that is somewhat better than that provided for mature cows grazing dormant forage, but not as much greater as many think.
Third, calves learn grazing skills from their mothers and other mature cows. Heifers that are returned to rangeland shortly after weaning do a better job of retaining those grazing skills, which is reflected in better performance the following summer. These improved grazing skills should make them better range cows throughout their lives.
Retaining larger number of heifers than actually needed as replacements means that increased pressure can be placed on selection for fertility. If all or most heifer calves are kept, it would be typical that only about half of them will need to get pregnant as yearlings to be kept.
A producer could synchronize estrus in all heifers and artificially inseminate (AI) them using time-breeding. In short, time-breeding means that all of the heifers would be inseminated at the time that the maximum number of them will ovulate following the synchronization protocol and there is no need to check for heat and gather heifers to breed them as they show heat. This overcomes the major disadvantage of AI; that being the labor and time needed to check heat and AI the cattle over an extended period of time.
If the heifers had grown adequately so most reached puberty, enough heifers should get pregnant in this protocol that it could comprise the entire breeding season and clean-up bulls would not be required.
Another advantage of this program is that heifers could be inseminated with semen from proven calving-ease bulls that a commercial producer could not afford to own. Those heifers with the fertility to get pregnant during this extremely short breeding season will likely be cows that can get pregnant early in the breeding season throughout their lives.
Once pregnancy is diagnosed later in the summer, the open heifers and other culls that are not suitable to be used as replacements can be marketed. Ultrasound can be used to detect pregnancy as early as about 40 days after breeding, allowing a relatively early opportunity to market the culls. If adequate forage is available next summer, market timing can be optimized to balance gain as stockers with a marketing plan to get the best sale price.
One consideration with a retained ownership program such as this is increased market risk. A producer that enters into a program like this should strongly consider a risk protection strategy such as the LRP livestock insurance program. How to use that is a topic for a future column.
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