Selecting replacement heifers
September 30, 2015
Selecting Replacement Heifers This Fall
Most producers in the Northern Plains and beyond will be weaning their spring-born calves in the next few weeks. One of the important and fun tasks that comes at or after the time of weaning is the selection of the heifers that will be kept as replacements. This task is important because it determines the future appearance, productivity, and economic value of our cow herds. It is fun because we get to look through our calf crop for the best and most attractive females that we will keep. A variety of criteria are important to this process and tools are available to assist.
An important aspect of heifer selection is when the heifers are selected. Many producers select heifers at weaning or shortly after because they immediately sell the non-replacement heifers. However, keeping most or all of the heifers until later dates can add powerful information that can support selection decisions, such as her ability to conceive and remain pregnant as a yearling. This means the culled heifers will be marketed in late summer after pregnancy checking. These heifers often have high market value because they are essentially stockers that are sought by feeders after a summer of grazing.
Waiting until calving or even after re-breeding as 2-year olds adds even more information to base selection on. Of course, when we choose to select the heifers depends on a lot of factors including feed availability and whether we can cash flow delayed marketing of cull heifers.
So, what are the important criteria for selecting heifers that will have the greatest success at becoming long-lived, productive, and profitable cows in our herds? Two long-standing criteria have been to select the oldest and heaviest heifers. Selecting the oldest heifers makes sense because they are more likely than younger heifers to reach puberty and be fertile by the beginning of the breeding season the next spring. Research is abundant that shows that heifers that breed early as yearlings are more likely to breed back early through the rest of their lives.
Selecting larger heifers makes sense because they are likely to be more mature and therefore have reached puberty and get pregnant as yearlings. However, one of the challenges in the industry is that beef cows have gotten very large, suggesting that perhaps we should not keep the very largest heifers. Because they are large and framy, they may be better suited as feeders than replacements. Thus, I am suggesting that we should choose the most uniform heifers from the middle of the group.
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Choosing heifers based on the performance of their dams is another valuable criterion to utilize. If individual performance records have been kept, those records provide a valuable resource to determine the lifetime productivity of each cow. Keeping heifers from cows with the highest lifetime productivity makes sense because those cows had genetics that make them productive in your environment. It is likely that the heifer will have received at least part of those genetics that made their dams productive.
Finally, genetic or genomic testing can provide valuable information about the genetic capacity to perform for many economically important traits. Some of the genetic testing companies have developed gene-testing panels designed specifically for evaluating the potential of commercial beef heifers as replacements. These panels will provide testing for several groups of important traits including growth traits, carcass traits such as marbling or tenderness, maternal traits such as stayability or calving ease, and efficiency traits such as residual feed intake (RFI).
As calves are weaned this fall, producers should consider when and how they have selected their replacement heifers in the past and consider if any other of the criteria and tools that I have listed here should be added to the selection process.