Setting heifers up to breed early has lifelong benefits

Experts from Zoetis and the University of Nebraska shared the latest technology available in the art of selecting replacement heifers during a strategic heifer retention seminar last week at the McCook Farm and Ranch Expo in McCook, Neb.

Kent Andersen of Zoetis, the world’s largest animal health company, told producers they should select heifers that breed up early for genetic, environmental and management reasons.

“I would also encourage all producers to work with their veterinarian to develop a good vaccination program,” he said. “You should be willing to do everything you can, management-wise, to take advantage of that genetic experience.”

With replacement heifer development costs averaging $1,000 for the heifer, $500 in costs from weaning to breeding and $500 in costs each year after that to retain a heifer, it is not cheap to develop replacement heifers. In fact, Andersen estimated each heifer to have a minimum value of $1,700-$1,800.

“With that much money at stake, you will want to set the stage for success,” he said. “It is important to minimize dropouts as much as possible. Do everything management-wise to set them up for success.”

The first step is to make a good pool of replacements, Andersen said.

“You can accomplish that by buying the right bulls that have good maternal traits,” he explained.

Ranchers also should consider selecting heifers that have a good visual appearance and are born earlier. They also might want to have a veterinarian score the heifer’s reproductive tract, measure the pelvis and perform a pregnancy test if there is a possibility the heifer was bred while still on the cow.

The dam’s production soundness should be considered, and production records like birth weight and weaning weight evaluated. Producers should eliminate any heifers from dam’s with bad bags or disposition problems.

“Use all the information you have available to select heifers that are most likely to succeed,” Andersen said.

“There are some traits you can’t see,” he continued. “But, you could utilize leverage technology to determine which heifers are the best, and which cows are more likely to be in the herd long-term.”

Using genetic testing methods, like the GeneMax system, Andersen said he can tell a lot about how a producer selects his bulls. In fact, by performing the 150K marker test, Andersen said he can tell more about a herd of cattle than from a producer who gathered data for long periods of time.

The GeneMax Advantage test can be used to test Angus-based females and Angus-based bull battery. This genetic test scores cattle from 1 to 100, with a score of 50 considered average.

“Using indexes like this are meant to simplify life,” he said. “It helps producers find the heifers that are the most efficient to help keep cow costs sensible.”

However, Andersen told producers they should still think about which heifers should be culled and which ones have the look of being highly productive in the herd.

“Some people think of these tests as a product to use to keep or cull, but don’t put it in a drawer and forget about it,” he cautioned. “I can tell a lot about a producer’s bull buying habits, based on how their heifers test. The genetic benefit of doing these tests is to show producers what they should be paying attention to when they are purchasing a bull.”

The test costs $28 a head, but Andersen admits it isn’t very effective to test cattle that are less than 75 percent Angus. While the company focuses on developing genetic tests that can make predictions on crossbred cattle, it still can be used to determine the percentage of each breed in an animal.

“This is the first step in unlocking the genetic merit in a hybrid animal,” he said.

Travis Mulliniks, beef nutritionist with the University of Nebraska West Central Research Center in North Platte, talked about the importance of nutrition in developing and breeding replacement heifers.

“Reproduction is the main factor limiting production efficiency in the beef cow herd,” he said. “Management early in life has long-term implications. Early conception increases longevity in the herd.”

The break-even cost for heifer development takes three to five years, according to Mulliniks. He said nutrition plays a large role in getting heifers bred.

“Nutrition at the time of breeding is critical,” he explained. “It is not based on how much you feed, but what you feed that is important.”

He warned producers they should only moderately select heifers for milk production.

“Angus cows produce more milk today than a high milking Holstein did in 1970. At some point, we need to quit putting so much emphasis on milk production,” he said.

— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at tclarklivenews@gmail.com.

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