3 Alternatives For Replacement Beef Heifers

by Burke Teichert in Strategic Planning For The Ranch
We hear quite often that the high cost of developing a replacement heifer dictates that we keep as few as possible. We also hear that a cow must wean 4-6 calves before she breaks even. I don’t doubt that, for many, this is true; but it doesn’t have to be.

At the recent Beef Improvement Federation meeting in Lincoln, NE, Rick Funston, a University of Nebraska beef cattle reproductive physiologist, presented research results indicating that, contrary to general belief, heifers don’t need to achieve 65% of expected mature cow body weight to achieve acceptable levels of pregnancy. In fact, the heifers in his study were in the 50-55% range of expected mature cow body weight, and were developed on low-cost feeds.

In Funston’s research and in other places, the cows produced from “minimally” developed heifers are proving to be better cows in their rebreeding rates and calf weaning weights. “Minimal” doesn’t mean they’re underdeveloped or that protein supplementation is unnecessary. The timing of breeding and calving will determine when supplementation is needed to keep heifers gaining weight before breeding and between breeding and calving as a first-calf heifer.

For years, economic research has shown stocker operations to be more profitable than cow-calf operations in most comparisons. If heifers are wintered as stockers, they should be profitable if sold as open stocker heifers.

If the only added cost is to artificially inseminate (AI) them or put bulls in, it may add as much as $60 to each bred heifer. In recent times, a bred heifer would easily bring $60 more than an open feeder heifer. So, in a typical year, the heifer owes you nothing. She’s paid her way and made a profit if you sell her or keep her as a replacement heifer.

The weaned calf crop percentage will be a little lower for the two-year-old heifers than for the mature cows, and the calves will weigh a little less. There will also be a few more open at preg-check time. The heifer will also weigh less as a cull, but the heiferette price will be as much as $10-15/cwt. better than for older culls.

The two-year-old year will cost you a little; but if the heifer is open and you sell her and her calf, she still should have paid her way. If she hasn’t, you should probably consider buying replacement cows – not heifers – from someone who specializes in this, rather than raise your own.

My point is that a well-run, profitable ranch should be able to cull cows at any age and make a good profit from the cow’s lifetime production when you include her sale weight. The few dry cows that lost calves between pregnancy check and weaning, and didn’t have a calf to sell, will be more than compensated for by the many others that weaned a calf.

Why buy replacement cows?

Why did I suggest buying replacement cows instead of bred heifers? Because two-year olds are less profitable than yearlings or adult cows. If you are buying replacements, why would you want to calve first-calf heifers, rebreed first-calf heifers, and market their smaller calves along with the bigger calves from your mature cows when you could calve and rebreed only cows that require much less attention? You can also buy smaller to moderate-sized cows and terminal cross them all with high-growth, good carcass merit bulls. I think most small ranches should consider this alternative.

When using low-cost heifer development and achieving weights less than 60% of expected mature cow body weight, I like to expose significantly more heifers than needed for replacements. I like short breeding periods – not more than 30 days. I know of a couple of ranches that expose almost all their heifers for one synchronized AI exposure with no cleanup bulls. The ones that get pregnant become their replacement heifers. With short exposure of yearling heifers, the pregnancy rate for two- and three-year olds usually increases in following years.

A larger ranch that uses this approach will usually have more pregnant heifers than needed. It can either sell a few bred heifers or sell some bred cows to make room for the heifers.

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