by: Heather Smith Thomas
Most stockmen try to keep an adequate number of heifer calves as replacements, usually selecting heifers from some of their best cows, sired by bulls that pass good maternal traits to daughters. There are many criteria for making final decisions regarding which heifers to keep and which ones to sell, and most breeders have certain goals.
Joe Van Newkirk, whose family has raised Hereford seedstock near Oshkosh, Nebraska for several generations, says that in addition to the minimum EPD standards he sets, he looks for depth of rib and flank (an indication of fleshing ability), structural correctness, a feminine look, pigment around the eyes and if possible on the udder. “In the Hereford breed, we try to have as much pigment as we can get,” he says.
Other factors on his list include udder structure, disposition and calving ease—he doesn’t keep any heifers that had any problems at birth. He also prefers to keep heifers from the more fertile older cows that have proven to be the best producers. You don’t always know what a heifer out of a first calver will be like, but you have a good idea about the calves from a 10-year-old cow that’s always been fertile and has good calves. “You know those heifers should be able to breed quickly and breed back quickly.”
When elaborating on this list, he says fleshing ability is very important. Good-doing cattle tend to last longer in the herd and continue to be productive. “They are more fertile, and also tend to be more docile,” he says.
He wants cattle that are wide and deep, with capacity to eat a lot. “Where we live, in the Sand Hills, we need a cow that can eat and hold a lot of grass. Our grass is not very strong but we have a lot of it,” he explains.
“Frame size is also a factor. Today everyone is saying that cattle should be moderate in size. We’ve noticed that the taller, horsier cows just don’t last. We need a happy medium. Generally a really small cow won’t raise the type of bulls that we can sell. They need some extra length, and good depth and spring of rib,” says Van Newkirk.
“Udder quality and structure on a heifer is hard to judge, at that edge. We don’t creep feed, but some heifers come off their mothers quite fat, and we look at the udders on the mothers more than we do the heifers,” he says. Generally, it’s hard to tell from a heifer calf what her udder will really be like until she has her first calf.
Some of the heifers from good-milking dams tend to have too much fat in their developing udder. “Sometimes the daughters don’t milk as well as their mothers. There has to be a balance there. A heavy-milking cow will raise good bull calves, but the daughters may not milk as well as she does,” he says.
Even though that heifer may never milk as well, because of the fat cells in her udder displacing part of the milk-producing tissue, her daughters may milk well because the genetics for milk production are still there. So milking ability is a trait that often skips a generation. In some herds, that next generation may not be given a chance, however, because that heifer isn’t as heavy at weaning as her mother was.
Regarding milking ability, he says that some people have tried to predict this with head measurements, saying the distance from the top of the poll to the muzzle should be about twice the distance between the eyes. “The theory is that the longer the face or muzzle, the better the milking ability. Maybe they thought that because the Holstein has a longer face, this correlates with milking ability, but I don’t think this is a dependable yardstick.” Many other factors are involved besides the shape and length of the head.
Femininity is important, however. “You can usually tell, from looking at them, which heifers will be more fertile. The good cows usually have a tidy head and neck. They should look like a cow,” he says.
“We ultrasound all the yearling heifers for carcass characteristics, and we look at this a little bit—though it’s not a make or break thing on whether we’ll keep her as a cow. In our business we’ll have a good idea about what their mothers and sires are like. I usually make my culling decisions before we ultrasound,” he explains.
“Another thing I look at is hair coat. I want a lot of hair, in our climate, where we have severe winters. I sold some bulls to south Texas this spring and most of the time those producers don’t want much hair on their cattle. I talked to that buyer recently and he said he singed all the hair off, in early March. Those bulls have done well, and act like they’ve been in that hot climate their whole life, whereas usually that first year the bulls don’t do very well, until they adapt,” says Van Newkirk.
“I don’t think this is a problem in most regions, however. We do like cattle to have a lot of hair, and it can even be curly hair.” It seems like a thick, healthy hair coat correlates with many other good qualities, including fleshing ability.
Another important factor in heifer selection is calving ease. “I never keep a heifer calf that had any problems being born—such as backward, or a leg back,” he says. No matter the cause, he doesn’t gamble on having any repeat problems.
“We pelvic measure heifers as yearlings, at the same time we ultrasound. We use that data as another selection tool. We’ve done this for about 15 years, and now we rarely cull anything on pelvic area unless there’s one that’s glaringly small. After doing it this long, our cow herd all has bigger pelvises, but we still check them because it’s handy.” Heifers with bigger pelvises might be bred AI to a bull that sires larger calves. It gives a little more option on the bulls that could be used on these heifers.
“We usually keep about 90 to 100 heifers, and we might pluck off a few of them after the ultrasound and pelvic measurement. The first cut involves the list of criteria I mentioned, and we also use pedigrees a lot,” says Van Newkirk.
Disposition is one of the criteria he uses, and he says it’s becoming even more important today. “Most of the people raising cattle are getting older and want cattle that are easy to handle,” he says. One advantage in the Hereford breed is that on average they tend to have an easy-going temperament.
Structural correctness and foot shape/conformation is also important, especially if cattle need to travel a lot. “We want them up on their toes rather than walking on their dewclaws. Cattle with poor foot and leg structure won’t hold up. We want some spring to the hind leg; post-legged cattle have more problems. We also want a cow to be wide in the pins. This comes back to pelvic measurement. The distance between the pins when you look at a cow from behind can be an indication of calving ease,” he explains.
Eye appeal is one more thing he considers. Usually the ones that fit his criteria do look good. Good structure and balance, and optimum functionality generally come in a package that is pleasing to look at.