Quality Counts: Developing or Purchasing Replacement Heifers
With the USDA reporting lower numbers of cows reproducing in the country, ranchers looking to build back their herds after reducing numbers due to drought may be considering whether to purchase bred heifers, or to purchase heifer calves to raise to build back their herds or offer for resale.
Don Melcher says that figuring out what works in each individual situation and staying flexible should be key components in the decision making process.
Don and Jean Melcher along with Kevin and Sherry, Matthew and Kristen and their families, raise registered Hereford cattle in northeastern Nebraska. Their ranch, near the town of Page, has been in Don’s family since 1911. Along with marketing the bulls they raise, for nearly twenty years Melchers have purchased heifers to breed and resell.
“Most of our registered cows calve in the fall so that we can market eighteen month old bulls,” Don said. “We develop and sell spring calving heifers. We try to get some red baldies, black baldies and straight Herefords every year, but it can depend on what’s available. We are more conscious of quality than numbers. A few of our own Hereford heifers might get put into the group for resale if we don’t need them in our registered herd, but we predominately market heifers that we purchase.”
Quality and disposition are priority when it comes to selecting heifers.
“We don’t just go buy run of the mill heifers,” Don said. “It’s important to us to know the reputation of the people behind them and know their genetics and the ranch they came from.”
One long time source sells Don all of his heifer calves each year with the agreement that he gets the first option to buy back whatever heifers he needs for replacements in his own herd out of those cattle.
“He’s not set up to AI, and he figures that this way he can run more cows, and doesn’t have the expense or labor involved to shorten the calving window on his replacement heifers,” Don said. “He can take home a group of heifers that are AI bred, calve early, and are done calving in two weeks, so it works very well for him.”
Melchers are careful in their selection process and in continuing to cull anything that doesn’t fit their ideal from the group prior to breeding season.
“We are particular about what groups of heifers we buy, and we sort hard before they go to the breeding pasture,” Don said. “We want Hereford or F1 Hereford cross cattle that are structurally correct, and that have less white rather than more. I don’t care how good they are if they’re wild, I pass. If I walk in and they run to the far end of the pen I keep walking. It’s a hard no, because our customers won’t put up with wild cattle.”
Still, Don says there is room for variation in type within the confines of high quality.
“The heifers aren’t all exactly alike,” he said. “Not every ranch is alike. We deal in really good cattle but they don’t all have to be alike. Some are smaller framed, others larger, and there’s a place for both. A lot of times we have a variety. For the most part we keep source groups together, if you want a certain type you can look at different groups to see which fits.”
Melchers synchronize the heifers and AI them to proven calving ease bulls. The heifers are ultrasounded in fall, and tagged for short calving intervals.
“We breed the Herefords and black baldies black; the red baldies we breed red,” Don said. “We try to keep the red baldies and black baldies separate through the breeding season. Due to pasture situations we may put some Herefords and baldies together with a cleanup bull, but we can still identify the groups that came from different sources for our customers. We normally offer gate cut with a ten percent sort. The bottom line is that a buyer won’t leave with a heifer they don’t want.”
Melchers mainly sell their bred heifers private treaty.
“It varies from year to year; sometimes they sell early, sometimes they sell late,” Don said. “There were several years we calved some of them out and sold pairs in the spring. Ranchers have to make decisions on the fly based on our circumstances. You can take the averages, but reality says that we don’t know how much rain we’re going to get, how much grass will grow in the pastures or how much hay the fields will produce. You can throw the averages out the window when it’s twenty-five below zero the week before Christmas.”
Chuck and Kerry Christman started raising replacement heifers for resale in 2009.
“Our kids had all gone off to school and jobs, and a shortage of help made us rethink our operation,” he said.
They chose to transition away from a traditional cow/calf operation and run yearlings on their place just north of Lemmon, South Dakota.
“I like to find heifers from a smaller operation, where a producer might keep the top end back but still have really good cattle to offer,” Chuck said. “I know I’m not going to keep them but I know that If I’m going to stay in business that I need to have traits that keep guys coming back to buy replacement heifers from me. I like to look at the mother cows, see the whole herd, see the sires. It’s important to know if they go back to big reputation breeders that are after strong maternal traits. You can tell a lot by looking at the mamas. I want to purchase heifers from guys that cull for disposition, bad bags, and bad feet.”
After decades raising registered Herefords, Chuck still prefers to purchase Hereford or Hereford influenced heifers.
“We all have different ideas about what we like,” he said. “I think we need some Herefords and baldies; I like them for their size, milk, temperament, efficiency and hair coat. I’m a big disposition guy. It might not be the biggest thing but it’s pretty important to me. A lot of that is environment and how the cattle are handled.”
Chuck prefers to purchase his heifers private treaty if possible. Although heifers from a commercial herd won’t have EPDs, he says that observations made walking through a cow herd or watching steers from the same producer go through a sale and on feed can give a pretty good idea of the quality of the heifer calves.
“I like to see what they are fed,” he said. “I prefer cattle that are fed lightly, for perhaps a pound and a half daily gain, so that they are on the gain when they go to grass. This promotes cycling and helps the conception rate. If they come off a feedlot weighing up, they are going to go backwards when I turn them out and they won’t cycle as well.”
Chuck says that quality, good conformation and uniformity sell. He tries to purchase heifers from the same herds every year, and he follows up with his customers to make sure that the heifers are meeting expectations and performing well. He synchronized and AI’d his heifers until a few years ago, when his bull bred heifers out sold his AI bred heifers.
“The ranchers I sell to calve their heifers same time as they calve their cows,” he said. “We don’t leave the bulls out for a long time, and we ultrasound the heifers and sell them in groups based on their calving cycle. I like to keep in touch, see how calving went, if the bulls I picked sired nice calves, how they did calving, how they bred back as three year olds, how they are doing in the cow herd. Some guys might get tired of me, but I like to make a quick call to check in or go look at them if I am able. Customer satisfaction is important to me, and it involves quality as well as genetics.”
How much is too much to pay for a bred heifer? That will vary from ranch to ranch. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln recently released their 2023 Replacement Heifer Forecast, which includes a range of data and spreadsheets that producers may find helpful as they run their own numbers. That resource can be found at https://cap.unl.edu/livestock/beef-heifer-replacement-forecast-2023-production-season.
“An old rule of thumb is that two weigh up cows or two heifer calves should buy a bred heifer,” Don Melcher said. “I’m an old guy so that goes back a long ways. It might not be everything you need to consider, but it gives you a starting place to know if bred heifers are priced reasonably.”
Chuck Christman said that the same rules apply to purchasing heifer calves.
“My Dad always said, ‘Don’t let an auctioneer talk you into how to spend your money,’” he said. “Set your price beforehand, know what you want to buy and buy the best you can, but don’t get caught up in the bidding. As a seller you like to see it; as a buyer you have to be pretty careful. The buyer is at the mercy of the market; you have to know what your inputs are whether you are going to AI or turn bulls out, know what your grass is worth and what your time is worth. Knowing your finances is the big thing.”
Don Melcher said that whether raising your own heifers or purchasing bred heifers, it all comes down to what works well on a particular operation.
“They say that the secret to success is to buy low and sell high,” he said. “I usually do the other. It’s like any other expense or investment, you have to invest in next year’s calf crop. This ranch has been in the family since 1911. I’m the third generation, my sons are the fourth. We have grandkids on the ranch that will be the fifth if they decide to come back. It’s been good to us.”