Develop replacement heifers with goal of longevity and profitability

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By ANDREA JOHNSON, Assistant Editor |

How many calves does a beef cow need to make a profit?

In many cases, it’s five to seven calves.

“As we talk about heifer selection – it starts actually before mating, before she is even conceived,” said Allen Bridges, University of Minnesota reproductive physiologist, North Central Research and Outreach Center.

An advocate for proper replacement heifer selection and development, Bridges “ran the numbers” to show when profitability occurs for a beef cow. He gave this information at the Cow/Calf Days held earlier this year.

Using rounded numbers that are subject to change, he suggested that if a 565-pound heifer were sold for $1.50 per pound at weaning, that’s an $850 “loss” from not selling her.

Then taking her from 205 days to 500 days of age will add another $380 if feed costs run about $1.30 per day.

“We already have a big cost tied up into her,” said Bridges.

At breeding time, the loss from not selling her and feed add up to $1,230.

Then the heifer is fed until she calves the following spring at two years of age.

The calf could be sold at weaning, or after backgrounding, or at finishing.

“When that heifer calves at two years old, her calf may not be sold until the third year of the original heifer’s life,” he pointed out.

Then it costs about $450 to keep the cow in the herd per year.

“It’s going to take until her sixth or seventh year of age until she actually turns a profit and you start getting money back on your investment,” Bridges said.

“What that means is, those heifers that you only get one or two calves out of – they take away from the heifers that make it through.”

Individual situations occur.

It is more likely; however, that cow producers make a profit on their beef animals when they start with good genetics and develop heifers that will be around for a long time in the herd.

The heifer needs to be fed right to reach puberty early and begin to cycle.

“If we don’t get them bred early, and they don’t calf early, the chances of them staying in our herd until they are eight, nine, 10, 11, or 12-year-old cows – that are generating us money – are pretty low,” he said. “Regardless if you have two cows or 2,000 cows, you want to turn a profit on them.”

Since cow operations generally have their cow herd in place, one of the first places to improve heifer development is through the sires.

“If we don’t select the sire right, if we fail to provide adequate nutrition, if we mess up our health, and don’t take care of management – what do we get at the end of the day? We get an ugly cow,” he said. “We get an undesirable animal that doesn’t stay in our herd, and doesn’t generate us any money.”

Bridges encourages producers to consider using a sire that will provide genetic attributes that match up with the operation’s goals.

He wrote about this subject in a University of Minnesota Beef Team article on heifer selection.

He suggested the following steps to use EPDs to assist with sire selection:

– Traits of economic importance should be prioritized and based on management practices and the marketing plans of the herd.

– The traits selected and levels of traits should match the nutritional resources available and the environment.

– Strive toward optimization. Select a sire that has above average EPD scores for many traits of importance.

“Don’t forget the value of the crossbred female,” Bridges said, adding that crossbred females are productive, have a good number of calves, and produce plenty of pounds of calf over their productive lifetime.

Developing a beef cow/calf herd takes a major investment in time, labor, money and resources. With sound development, each heifer can offer productivity, longevity and profitability.

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