Efficient Heifer Selection

Charlie Kraus  Hays, Kansas

Here is some more on the topic you suggested.

These remarks are general, but worth thinking about, anyway.

For nearly my entire cow/calf career, I have done as you have done.  I have sorted through my heifers for the number I needed and then sought the best way to develop them.

Looking back over the past few years and the changes we have made in that time, I can start to see some of my mistakes.

First, I was selecting among heifers (immature cows) for traits I hoped would make them successful, mature cows

This was backwards.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to select for success among mature cows if successful, mature cows is what I’m after?

Recently, I read something on the Lasater Ranch website that sums it up:

Remember, the goal of a selection program is not to keep every cow in the herd, or, in the case of fertility, to get every cow bred. Herd improvement comes through culling, by weeding out those that don’t measure up to their mates. If you are getting plenty of your heifers and cows bred, then tighten the screws: reduce your feeding program and shorten your breeding season. Your herd will advance genetically, and the cattle that make the grade will be producing “more beef for less money.”

It’s what we get rid of that makes our herd better, not what we choose to keep.  I’ve spent a good deal of time chewing on that.

I would suggest that by taking the Lasater approach, the cattle that don’t “make the grade” will also “make more beef with less money.”

But if we take this approach, doesn’t it mean we must end up culling a high percentage of cows into which we have invested a lot of extra time, effort, and, especially, money?

Ah!  There’s the rub.

It was a mistake for me to focus on replacement heifers as a separate enterprise or cost center.  When I focused on the “part”, I lost sight of the “whole”.  Putting heifers on a special program of selection and diet in order to help them become successful cows was another of my mistakes.

Despite trying to break my herd down into pieces, it somehow occurred to me that every animal I sell – steer, heifer, cow, bull – is destined to become beef on someone’s plate.

Therefore it made sense to me to strive to earn a profit on each animal sold rather than make certain ones – the annual calf crop – produce extra “revenue” to cover the extra “expense” of certain others.  It seemed a bit unfair to me to make the calf crop pay for the extra expense of developing replacement heifers.

I began to see a way out when I tried to build a model of my herd on a computer spreadsheet.  Tracking the feed expense for the replacement heifers as a separate enterprise made the model more complicated.

Why not lump the heifers in with the cows and assume they eat the same grass and crop residue as the cows?  I could then simply make adjustments in daily dry matter consumption based on the lighter weight of the heifers.

When I’d did this, I found that my feed (pasture, stubble, hay) expense was low enough that I could sell open long yearling heifers at a profit as feedlot replacements.  They would be able to turn grass into dollars by gaining weight at a rate comparable to cows that turned grass into dollars by raising calves.

Slowly, the light dawned.

My profit-driven, low-input brood cow program made it possible to also have a profitable yearling heifer enterprise.  The ones that became pregnant were merely a bonus, not a rigid goal.

Why not keep nearly all the weaned heifer calves and consider them part of the cow herd from that time on?  Why not forego selling them as calves and sell them sometime later as long yearlings, bred heifers, heiferettes, bred cows or open cows?  If expenses are well understood  and well managed, all of these can be sold profitably.

I have long been mistaken to think of my open heifers and cows as failures.  I was reluctant to cull misfits and bad actors because of what I thought I was losing in terms of what they had cost to develop.  Now, these are just other profitable products of a low-input cattle operation.

Culling for genetic improvement is easier for me now.  Be keeping nearly all my heifers, I’ve always got plenty of heifers for replacements.

Culling for drought is also easier, especially with plenty of extra bred heifers and heifer calves in the pipeline AT ALL TIMES.  By culling extra deep into the mature cows, I make room for bred heifers with lower DMI requirements and can cut forage requirements somewhat without reducing the next calf crop by as great a number as I would if I had sold all my heifers or retained only a few carefully selected ones.

It may seem backwards, but keeping extra heifers around is now part of our “Permanent Drought Plan”.

Gary Wofford’s thread about cattle ranching essentials has got me thinking,

We can make a big mistake if we try to make ranching as simple as possible.

I think that’s worth repeating.

We can make a big mistake if we try to make ranching as simple as possible.

To me, a ranch that only intentionally produces weaned calves is like a farm that only intentionally produces corn.

We all recognize the problems with a monocrop of corn from a biological standpoint.  It also has problems from a business standpoint. It lacks stability and resilience.  If a second crop like soybeans is added to the farm, it adds complexity.  It also adds stability and resilience.  Last year, many Midwest farmers who lost their corn to the drought, still had good soybeans that benefitted from rains that came too late for the corn.  Adding even more crops can add even more stability and resilience.

Intentionally retaining a lot of extra heifers adds complexity to the ranch.  It also creates more production, marketing and culling choices.  These lead to more stability and resilience.  More rapid genetic improvement is just a bonus.

I’ve drifted some, but I hope you see a bigger picture.

By focusing too much on selecting and developing only the few heifers we think will be the best cows in the future, we miss the bigger picture.  We miss opportunities.

Here’s the long form of the Lasater Ranch genetic improvement program.

Disposition

Having been raised under identical range conditions, the difference in disposition between individuals is apparent during the first several days following weaning. Those with poor dispositions are culled. Thereafter, disposition is judged continually and animals which exhibit unacceptable behavior are culled from the herd.

Fertility

Bulls retained for use in our herd go into service at approximately 14 months of age. All breeding occurs in large multiple-sire herds. For more than 50 years, the bulls with the highest libido and the strongest competitive instincts have left the most progeny. Less fertile bulls, or those less willing to compete, have left little or no progeny.

Females are first exposed at 12 to 14 months of age. All age groups are bred under range conditions during a 45-day breeding season. Here in the Foundation Herd, strict culling on fertility goes back to 1948. That year, Tom Lasater decided that, to remain in the herd, a female would need to calve as a two-year-old, and every successive year, and actually bring an acceptable calf to the weaning pen each year. Those basic production rules have been enforced, with no exceptions, for more than fifty years.

Even cows losing calves for reasons beyond their control, such as having a calf killed by lightning or in a blizzard, are removed from the herd. That ensures that every calf’s dam has worked and rested on the same schedule, making all performance data and comparisons more valid.

This selection history means that every bull purchased out of this herd not only carries the visible facts of performance such as weaning weight, yearling weight, and conformation; he also carries the genetic imprint of his dam and other female ancestors who have been held to these stringent production requirements for these many years.

Remember, the goal of a selection program is not to keep every cow in the herd, or, in the case of fertility, to get every cow bred. Herd improvement comes through culling, by weeding out those that don’t measure up to their mates. If you are getting plenty of your heifers and cows bred, then tighten the screws: reduce your feeding program and shorten your breeding season. Your herd will advance genetically, and the cattle that make the grade will be producing “more beef for less money.”

Weight

Bulls to be retained as herd sires are selected based upon weaning weight, post-weaning gain and yearling weight. Weaning weight primarily measures the milking ability of a bull’s dam, but also gives an indication of a bull’s own growth potential. Post weaning gain to a year of age (in our program) measures how efficiently a bull is able to convert native forage to pounds of beef. Yearling weight is a combination of weaning weight and post weaning gain and therefore is the most important weight used in selection.

Approximately 85% of the heifer crop is retained for replacements. Only defective heifers or those that appear unable to reach puberty at 14 months of age are culled at weaning. After that time a cow is not culled based on her own weight, but for weaning a lightweight calf. What do we do with all the females resulting from keeping so many heifers? The strict selection for the Six Essentials and the resulting rapid attrition drastically limit internal herd growth.

Conformation

Conformation is defined as “type on the hook, not type on the hoof.” Muscling, along with length and width of hindquarters is emphasized in the selection of bulls as potential herd sires. Animals with any type of structural defects such as problems with their feet and legs or frame are culled from the herd.

Hardiness

Hardiness is exemplified by those animals that relentlessly carry on their production assignments year after year in a range environment with minimum assistance. For example in our herd, first-calf heifers are expected to calve out on the range with no assistance. These criteria favor those individuals that are able to carry on production with minimal intervention and with the least cost.

Milk Production

Only bull calves with above average weaning weights are considered as potential herd sires. These bulls will most likely sire daughters that will perpetuate the heavy milking characteristics demonstrated by their individual dams. Lightweight calves, both bulls and heifers, are culled at weaning. Dams weaning bottom-end calves are also culled from the herd.

 

 

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