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Ken Olson: Selecting heifers to keep as replacements

It’s nearly weaning time and I expect most people have weaning and marketing plans in place. The unprecedented highs in calf prices have to make marketing calves a fun and exciting process this year. An important part of that decision is determining how many and which heifer calves to keep as replacements. It will likely be enticing to sell them all when one considers how much they are worth.

The alternative to consider is the value that replacement heifers might bring in the future as productive cows in your herd. We have heard all the news about how low the inventory of cows is in the U.S. Economists suggest that economic indicators should have been causing herd expansion. However, other factors including high feed costs and the devastating drought in the Southern Plains have caused further herd liquidation. Opportunities exist for profitable cow-calf enterprises for several years to come.

To prepare for these opportunities, choosing heifers with the highest potential to be productive cows is more imperative than ever. Most people select heifers they will keep as replacements at the time of weaning or shortly after. The first decision is how many heifers to keep. This depends upon whether a person wants to maintain the same herd size, expand, or shrink. Once that goal is set, then evaluate how many cows will be culled. As is obvious, it is pretty simple to determine how many heifers to keep depending on the herd size goal. Of course, more heifers need to be kept proportionate to the number of cows culled because not all heifers will successfully get pregnant and become members of the cowherd. How many extras to keep depends on several factors: feed resources available to support heifers, and what the market potential for non-replacements is throughout various stages of development.



There are a variety of potential markets for various ages and classes of heifers. First, as already mentioned, they are worth a lot this fall as weaned heifer calves. Another opportunity is to sell quality heifers that exceed your replacement needs as yearling heifers next spring, as bred heifers next fall, or even as bred two-year-olds. All of these delayed markets have the potential to add a lot of value to them, but of course, depends on feed resource options to support them beyond weaning. Prices for bred heifers this fall are as phenomenally high as calf prices. Finally, there is the option to retain more heifers than needed for replacement purposes and sell the surplus as long-yearlings off grass as feeders.

There are a variety of criteria to use for the selection process. Probably the most tried and true is visual appearance. This can be a valuable tool in terms of ensuring that the replacements are structurally sound, show femininity, and have smooth, well-attached udders without extra teats. We have long recommended that replacements should be the oldest and largest heifer calves. This is based on a number of excellent research studies from the 1970s and ’80s that indicated that age and weight play important roles in when heifers reach puberty, and that older and heavier heifers are more likely to reach puberty by initiation of breeding as yearlings. Recent research has indicated that age plays a more important role than size, indicating that choosing the oldest heifers is more important than choosing the largest (granted, they often go hand-in-hand). We may often want to purposefully avoid the largest heifers simply because they also will likely become cows that are very large at maturity.



Finally, a very valuable tool that is often overlooked is to evaluate herd performance records to help find the best candidates. Highly productive cows are likely to produce highly productive daughters. Sort the herd performance records and identify the daughters of the most productive cows. Once this list is made, then go through and select the oldest heifer calves. Finally, visually inspect those heifers and cull any that are not structurally sound, feminine, etc.

Additional selection criteria can be added as heifers get older. This can be tremendously valuable to help with selection of the very best replacements. If excess heifers are retained through the winter until they are yearlings, then post-weaning growth can be considered, and potential to be pubertal by breeding can also be considered. If excess heifers are kept through breeding, run on grass through the summer, and then pregnancy tested, then the value of selection based on fertility is obvious. The open heifers are essentially grass cattle than can go into the feedlot. There is a lot of value in these kinds of heifers this fall, also. Because of high corn prices, cattle feeders are very interested in heavy feeders like this that will perform well and finish quickly. As a result, value has been added to all retained heifers, both those that become replacements and those that become feeders.

Choosing replacement heifers has always been an important decision, and is one that most cattle producers enjoy doing. The cattle industry is in the midst of really interesting times that can be considered either opportunities or challenges depending on your perspective. The right heifers can become the right kind of cows that add a lot of value and opportunity to your herd in the future.


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