Evaluate how many replacement heifers to keep

Each year, commercial cow-calf operations must decide how many replacement heifers are grown out to be put in the breeding pasture. Individual ranches must make the decisions about heifer retention based upon factors that directly affect their bottom line. Stocking rates may have changed over time due to increases in cow size. Droughts have caused herd sizes to fluctuate over time.

Matching the number of cattle to the grass and feed resources on the ranch is a constant challenge for any cow-calf producer. Also, producers strive to maintain cow numbers to match their marketing plans for the long-term changes in the cattle cycle. Therefore, it is a constant struggle to evaluate the number of replacement heifers that must be developed or purchased to bring into the herd each year.

As a starting place in the effort to answer this question, it is important to look at the “average” cow herd to understand how many cows are in each age category. Dr. Kris Ringwall, director of the Dickinson, ND, Research and Extension Center, reported on the average number of cows in their research herd by age group for a period of over 20 years.

Figure 1 depicts the “average” percent of cows in this herd by age group. The graph indicates that the typical herd will, “on the average,” introduce 17 percent new first-calf heifers each year. Stated another way, if 100 cows are expected to produce a calf each year, 17 of them will be having their first baby. Therefore, this gives us a starting point in choosing how many heifers we need to save each year.

Next, we must predict the percentage of heifers that enter a breeding season that will become pregnant. The prediction is made primarily upon the nutritional growing program that the heifers receive between weaning and breeding.

Researchers many years ago found that only half of heifers that reached 55 percent of their eventual mature weight were cycling by the time they entered their first breeding season. This data was reinforced with data from Oklahoma State University. If these heifers were exposed to a bull for a limited number of days (45-60), not all would have a chance to become pregnant during that breeding season. Therefore, it would be necessary to keep an additional 50 percent more heifers just to make certain that enough bred heifers were available to go into the herd.

Remember the increased number of heifers will require additional pasture, increased health costs, and increased breeding costs. If natural breeding is used, extra bull power will be necessary. If artificial insemination (AI) is the method of choice, the larger number of heifers will require increased synchronization and AI costs. As soon as possible the heifers should be pregnancy checked and the open heifers marketed as stocker heifers.

However, if the heifers were grown at a more rapid rate and weighed 65 percent of their eventual mature weight, then 90 percent of them would be cycling at the start of the breeding season and a much higher pregnancy rate would be the result.

Even in the very best scenarios, some heifers will be difficult or impossible to breed. Most experienced cow herd managers will always expose at least 10 percent more heifers than they need even when all heifers are grown properly and weigh at least 65 percent of the expected mature weight.

The need to properly estimate the expected mature weight is important in understanding heifer growing programs. Cattle type and mature size have increased over the last half century. Rules of thumb that apply to 1,000-lb. mature cows very likely do not apply to your herd.

Watch sale weights of culled mature cows from your herd to better estimate the needed size and weights for heifers in your program. Most commercial herds have cows that average about 1,200 lbs. or more. This requires that the heifers from these cows must weigh at least 780 lbs. at the start of their first breeding season to expect a high percentage to be cycling when you turn in the bulls.

This discussion is meant to be a starting place in the decision to determine the number of heifers needed for replacements. Ranchers must keep in mind the overriding need to understand what forage base resources that they have available to them. — Glenn Selk, Oklahoma State University emeritus extension animal scientist


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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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Burke Teichert: 10 thoughts on heifer development

One of the biggest determinants of ranch profit is the cost of developing or acquiring herd replacements.

Much has been written recently on heifer development. Here are 10 comments, in no particular order, related to the subject:

1.     Know going into it, replacements will determine ranch profitability.

One of the biggest determinants of ranch profitis the cost of developing or acquiring herd replacements. Of the various accounting methods you might use, cow acquisition costs must be absorbed in the sale of cattle.

2.     Develop or buy?

Therefore, the first decision to make is whether to develop your own heifers or buy replacement cows—notice that I said cows. While purchased heifers might be slightly better genetically, they have the two toughest years of their life ahead of them and will have to adjust to a new environment after relocation. If you are not raising your own, buy bred cows. The terminal sires you use will be the major determinant of the quality of your calves.

3.     Keep that breeding season short, and then cull.

I have continually encouraged keeping all but the poorest heifer calves and exposing them to AI and/or bulls for a very short time—not more than 30 days. I’ll guarantee that the bulls and the environment will select better heifers than you will. The main reason is that heifers that breed and calve late cannot live long enough to catch up with those that breed and calve early regardless of genetic superiority in non-fertility traits.

4.     Develop those heifers on grass.

I don’t like to develop heifers in pens. I think they should be wintered like dry wintered stockers on grass, crop residues or hay along with appropriate protein and mineral supplementation.

Work at the Fort Keogh Livestock and Range Research Station at Miles City, Mont., and at New Mexico State indicate that including Rumensin and a high proportion of bypass protein in the yearling heifer supplement will pay reproduction dividends into the cows’ later life. No, they won’t all get pregnant with this kind of development, but the open heifers should be profitable, and the pregnant heifers are set up to become very good cows.  It’s been so long ago that I can’t remember the numbers, but on the ranch where I was raised in western Wyoming at 6200 feet elevation with a lot of snow, our heifer calves were fed hay and free choice salt. Occasionally, I remember feeding them a little grain.

5.     Nutrition matters.

Since heifers developed in this manner are smaller than typical heifers and still need to grow while getting ready to calve, it is good to ensure adequate protein and quality pasture as they approach calving season or perhaps before the second breeding season if you are calving in summer or fall. You would much rather that they fail to breed and fall out as yearlings than as two year olds.

6.     Is reproduction really a genetic trait?

There are those who will argue that the heritability of reproduction is low. You can almost make any yearling heifer get pregnant if you provide enough feed. Therefore, you could argue that most of reproduction is due to management.

However, if you restrict inputs or expect the animals to get pregnant in tougher conditions, I think the heritability becomes higher—at least there is certainly more segregation when all are given the same chance to get pregnant. But, even if the heritability is low, it still makes economic sense to select the heifers that become pregnant early in the breeding season because of their economic advantage over late bred heifers.

In this argument, a short calving season and low heifer development costs are significantly more important economically than genetics for growth and carcass. That’s not saying you abandon growth and carcass, but don’t let them rule.

7.     Let’s emphasize a short calving season one more time. It’s important.

The cows in most herds are fairly evenly distributed under a bell shaped curve—with a few very good cows, a few bad ones and the rest scattered in between with more around average. We should cull the obviously bad ones every year. That will keep the bottom end cleaned up fairly well.

It’s really hard to tell the truly good cows. We might know the weaning weight of their calves. We might know their calving interval. We might know they are problem free.  But, we don’t know how much feed they ate in relationship to the pounds of calf they produced. We probably don’t know their contribution to carcass quality, etc.

When all traits are considered economically, I think it is really difficult to know how to separate the good cows from the average except by calving date.  So, set your herd up to calve early by selecting heifers that calve early—hopefully as a result of first cycle conception.

8.     Are your bulls really that good?

One more question—If you are buying good bulls, why will you keep a cow when you are not willing to give her daughter a chance to breed? If you won’t keep the heifer calf, would that not be a reason to cull the mother? Or is it possible that the bulls you bought aren’t so good after all?  If sire and dam are both good, shouldn’t you give the daughter a chance to show she can get pregnant on time?  If she does that, she’s already on the road to being pretty good.

9.     Steers as a by-product?

I have a good friend who retains all of his steer calves to run as yearling stockers. Even doing that, he says that his steers are a by-product of his bred cow business. By keeping and exposing most of his heifers, he has a good number of bred cows to sell. He does breed the heifers longer than I recommend, but sells those that breed later—after 24-30 days depending on breeding success.

While I don’t believe in buying bred heifers for replacements, I don’t have any problem selling them to those who still haven’t figured it out. In the meantime, he doesn’t keep many cows over six years old—just the very best.  So, when you buy cows from him, you will be getting good young cows.

10.  Terminal cross for growth, carcass

For many people, it is much simpler to buy replacement cows from those who make good cows as described above. Then breed them to bulls that favor growth and carcass.

Teichert, a consultant on strategic planning for ranches, retired in 2010 as vice president and general manager of AgReserves, Inc. He resides in Orem, Utah. Contact him at burketei@comcast.net.

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Show-Me-Select heifers add genetics when replacing old beef cows in herd

Proven replacement heifers build genetics in beef herds. They increase future calf value from the herd.

Buying Show-Me-Select replacement heifers gives a quicker boost to herd genetics than growing your own, says Dave Patterson, University of Missouri Extension beef specialist.

Increasing numbers of herd owners specialize in raising superior SMS replacements. Buying them adds heifers from the top proven sires in the breed.

Six fall sales of spring-calving SMS heifers start Oct. 28.

Sale dates, locations, times and contacts are:

-Oct. 28, Farmington Livestock Auction, 7 p.m.; Kendra Graham, 573-756-4539.

-Nov. 18, Joplin Regional Stockyards, Carthage, 7 p.m.; Eldon Cole, Mount Vernon, 417-466-3102.

-Nov. 18, Kirksville Livestock, 6 p.m.; Zac Erwin, 660-665-9866.

-Nov. 26, Kingsville Livestock Auction, 11 a.m.; David Hoffman, Harrisonville, 816-380-8460.

-Dec. 3, Fruitland Livestock Sales, 1 p.m.; Erin Larimore, Jackson, 573-243-3581.

-Dec. 10, F & T Livestock Market, Palmyra, 12:30 p.m.; Daniel Mallory, New London, 573-985-3911.

Producing superior heifers with calving-ease genetics isn’t a quick process. Heifer buyers gain benefits of years of work by developers. Purchased genetics show up in the next calf crop.

This fall, MU Extension regional livestock specialists say sellers are uncertain about expected prices. Calf prices and beef futures markets dropped sharply this year from record prices two years ago.

Specialists remind sellers that many more bidders know the value of beef genetics. They pay more for quality.

However, Eldon Cole, MU Extension specialist at Mount Vernon, says, “It could be a buyers’ market.”

MU Extension leads the nation in heifer development education, which has been underway since 1997. Buyers from 19 states have bought heifers at SMS sales.

Kendra Graham, MU Extension specialist, Farmington, is surprised by the number of phone calls from potential out-of-state buyers.

“Repeat buyers bid more for Show-Me-Select,” Patterson said. “They know what they are buying.”

Bidders get data as well as heifers. Sale-day catalogs give genetic details such as sire EPDs (expected progeny differences) on sale offerings.

Major emphasis in the early years was on adding calving-ease EPDs. Herd owners almost eliminated need for cesarean-section births of large calves. Veterinarians like that.

With calving ease, buyers cut death losses of heifers and offspring at calving. Along with calving ease, breeders add EPDs for carcass traits such as marbling.

With fixed-time artificial insemination (FTAI), all cows can be bred on the same day. That shortens calving seasons. Producers spend fewer nights checking calving.

Best of all, they find fewer heifers need assistance at birth.

SMS is more than genetics, Patterson said. Good health and nutrition help heifers reach puberty earlier. Pre-breeding exams cull heifers that can’t calve. That groups calving dates and boosts calving rates as well. Dead calves hurt herd profits.

In recent talks at beef meetings, MU Extension economist Scott Brown says growing quality beef gives risk management. Carcasses grading USDA prime sell for more than lower-quality grades. Also, prime quality smooths price volatility.

Information on the SMS program and sales can be found at agebb.missouri.edu/select.

Patterson and MU graduate students did research on heifer management and breeding at the MU Thompson Farm, Spickard. The farm, part of the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, maintains a commercial Angus-based beef herd.

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Who Will Survive Low Cattle Prices? Those With the Lowest Inputs

By   /  October 24, 2016  /

The cattle market is in the toilet. The future looks even worse. Calves bring only one-half of what they did a couple years back. Stocker margins are negative, feeders too. The American cattle industry is on its knees, broken and busted. Is this the end?


Well maybe, at least for some folks. A better question might be this: who will survive this Armageddon, and how will they do it?

This spring I hosted a pasture tour for my local grazing group. Our meetings are often raucous events and the discussions are free-wheeling. The group is made up of many independent-thinking individuals and the questions are sometimes hard.

As we walked the fields looking at grass, fencing and water, I explained that my basic philosophy was to constantly work to lower both my overheads and my direct costs with the fundamental goal of achieving a zero-input ranching model: one that functions on sunshine, rain and management, with no outside inputs.

Imagine my surprise when this idea was met with skepticism, including one basic question: “Why?” As in, why, with all of the obvious production advantages offered by soil amendments, irrigation, cover cropping, protein supplements, why would I simply say “no” to inputs?

I have to admit, I was a bit taken aback. My belief in low input ranching has evolved over a long period of observation and study, and it has become so much a part of my mindset that I no longer even question whether inputs might be a good thing. I simply assume that inputs are counter-productive to my economic and ecological goals. My thinking about inputs has approached religious faith, it seems.

In response to the question of “why” regarding my belief in a low input model, I stammered around a bit, but finally came up with some thoughts about inputs and ranch economics:

First, grass grown with chemical or physical inputs must compete —economically speaking — with the grass I now produce with zero inputs. Sunshine and rain are free, which means I grow grass with zero direct costs. Zero is a pretty low cost structure, and difficult to beat.

Second, grass grown with chemical or physical inputs must also compete with the value or cost of grass I can purchase from my neighbors. In other words, if I can rent pasture for $10 or $20 per AUM, input-produced grass must be able to beat that price to be attractive. I doubt that is possible.

Finally, I occasionally find myself thinking about Armageddon. Not necessarily the Biblical event, but what if our industry or our country was faced with a severe collapse? Perhaps some economic, ecological or political upheaval where supply, transportation and marketing would become much more difficult. What sort of production system would still function in that sort of future? My conclusion: a system that functions independently of politics or policy, that mimics natural processes, that produces and markets locally. I find myself wanting to pursue and promote a model that might just work, even in the most difficult of futures, in times much worse than these.

I’m not the only one thinking about this. I recently came across an article where the author (a forward thinking rancher-philosopher) pondered a future where we would have to operate in much the same way as our grandfathers did: no chemical fertilizer, herbicides, wormers or drugs. Very little equipment or hay and very well-adapted cattle.

Maybe that’s our collective future, maybe not. In any case, today’s market trouble may not be the onset of total Armageddon, but it will certainly be difficult for many folks in the industry. Ranchers who have built an economic model based on $1,500 weaner calves will probably find it difficult to adapt to the current reality of $700 calves. And for any business that cannot or will not adapt to that new reality, a tiny little Armageddon awaits.

I’m generally optimistic. In the end, I believe calves can be profitably produced, even in the current market. Clearly, that will require a focus on tightly controlling production costs. For me, that means taking a hard stand against inputs and doing a better job of managing grass resources. I will need the right kind of cattle and the right mindset. I will need to produce pounds of beef with very, very little in the way of input costs.

And that is how I plan to survive Armageddon, or the current market, whichever is worse.


John Marble

John Marble grew up on a terribly conventional ranch with a large family where each kid had their own tractor. Surviving that, he now owns a small grazing and marketing operation that focuses on producing value through managed grazing. He oversees a diverse ranching operation, renting and owning cattle and grasslands while managing timber, wildlife habitat and human relationships. His multi-species approach includes meat goats, pointing dogs and barn cats. He has a life-long interest in ecology, trying to understand how plants, animals, soils and humans fit together. John spends his late-night hours working on fiction, writing about worlds much less strange than this one.

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A Great Place To Raise A Family

April 27, 2016

I occasionally lead workshops I call Hard Work and Harmony: Effective Relationships In Family Businesses. In it I like to ask participants to explain to the person next to them why they ranch.  Some say they love being their own boss, or love working outdoors and with livestock. Almost all of them say something about loving the lifestyle. Near the top of most people’s lists is, “It’s a great place to raise a family.”

I agree. I grew up on a small place. The biology lessons I learned from tending livestock were more influential than any I ever had in a classroom.  I learned other lessons too. I learned how to work hard and how to be resourceful. But it wasn’t just about work. Our place was a great setting for any adventure my imagination could conjure up. My mom sold it when I was in college and it just about broke my heart.

A ranch can be a great place to raise a family, but it isn’t always. I worked with a rancher shortly after my son, Jack, was born.  When we broke for lunch he asked about my new baby. I told him that when they placed Jack in Kathy’s arms for the first time, I could hardly see him for the tears of joy streaming down my face.  Tears welled up in his eyes too, but they weren’t tears of joy. Trying to hold back a flood of emotion, he told me how he had worked sun up to sun down to build a place “for the generations to come.”  He said that he hadn’t been as involved in his children’s lives as he should have been. As we sat on the hill, he told me that now he rarely hears from his adult children, who want no part of the ranch. A ranch can be a great place to raise a family, but it is not a substitute for our active involvement in family life.

Many ranchers are addicted to work. I’ll bet you’ve even heard some of your colleagues brag about how long and hard they work, proudly proclaiming things like, “I haven’t taken a vacation in 20 years.” They say it as though it is something to be proud of.  When I hear things like that I shake my head wondering, “Are things that bad?” You can’t run a sustainable business on unsustainable effort.

Intentional or not, work can become an excuse to avoid working through the issues every healthy family faces at one point or another.  When work consistently takes precedence over family needs, we set ourselves and our families up for trouble. Engaging in what may be uncomfortable conversations when issues first come up can keep them from growing into big problems.

In the last few months I’ve met a number of people who are learning that lesson the hard way. After decades of avoiding uncomfortable family issues they are facing extremely difficult challenges regarding succession.  Now, without any experience working with one another to resolve small issues, they are hoping to work through the most difficult challenges many of us will ever face. The conversations are made even more difficult because of the hurts that have gone untended and the resentments that have grown from not taking care of the family in the family business.   It’s a tough way to learn that success has more to do with healthy relationships than with conception rates and balance sheets.

I don’t mean to suggest that the physically demanding work that ranches require can be ignored, but it doesn’t have to be all consuming. Many Ranching For Profit School alumni have discovered that the ranch was all consuming only because they allowed it to be that way. After the school they restructured the business to increase profit and liberate their time to put more life in their work/life balance. They still work as hard as anyone, just not as long. Their ranches are great places to raise their families, andthey actually take the time and make the effort to be directly involved in raising them.

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Better heifer breeding

John Barnhart knows time is money in today’s cattle business. That’s why the Vienna, Mo., cattleman values breeding technology like fixed-time artificial insemination (FTAI).

“Fixed-time AI gives us the opportunity to get in there and breed a lot of females in a hurry,” Barnhart says. “And, the labor savings is tremendous. It’s one of those things where we can go in and literally be done [breeding] in about two days.”

An AI program without estrus synchronization could take 20-25 days. “It certainly eliminates a lot of headaches,” Barnhart says, “and, really gives us an option to increase the genetic base for our cattle herd. Plus, it improves the quality of our cow herd. It’s just been a tremendous difference in our whole operation.”

Barnhart works closely with University of Missouri Extension beef specialist Professor Dave Patterson, as well as Genex Cooperative, in establishing the right fixed-time AI protocol for his operation.

Fixed-time AI protocols allow all cows in a herd to be bred in one day. Proven AI sires add quality, while timed breeding adds uniformity to the calf crop.

Cows and heifers call for different synchronization protocols. Traditionally, heifers cause more management problems by way of reduced fertility, increased dystocia, greater nutrient needs and longer post-partum intervals. However, a new 14-day protocol involving split-time AI works best for most heifers.

Research conducted by Patterson and MU graduate assistant Jordan Thomas examined the timing of gonadotropin releasing hormone (GnRH) administration with split-time AI (STAI) following controlled internal drug release (CIDR)-based protocols to synchronize estrus and ovulation in beef heifers and cows.

According to Patterson, postponing AI and GnRH administration for heifers that fail to show heat by 66 hours allows more time for ovulation before insemination and might also minimize fertility differences between bulls. The technique allows more heifers and cows to exhibit estrus before insemination, as determined by activation of an Estrotect heat detection aid, applied at prostaglandin.

Patterson says GnRH administered at AI is not necessary for heifers that express estrus prior to 66 hours.

GnRH administration can be done concurrently with AI at 90 hours for heifers that fail to express estrus. Patterson says it is likely that improvements in pregnancy rates are due primarily to expression of estrus during the 24-hour delay period.

“If you use STAI, it can essentially maximize the proportion of the females that show estrus prior to being inseminated, and you end up getting pregnancy rates that are very similar to estrus detection protocols,” Patterson says.

Compared to FTAI protocols, Patterson says pregnancy rates are about 5% higher with the STAI approach. “You also have the confidence of knowing what your estrus response actually is at the time of breeding,” he says.

And with no GnRH being administered to heifers that express estrus by breeding, the STAI approach actually offers a cost savings to producers.

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