Burke Teichert: How to manage your way out of a hard-calving cowherd

Over 25 years ago, I moved to Nebraska as the general manager of the Rex Ranch. I had a lot of experience calvinglarge groups of first-calf heifers, so until the ranch became bigger and had several units, it was only natural for me to work with one other person to calve, feed and care for the heifers and their calves.

Even though we were calving groups as large as 500 head, my co-worker did most of the feeding and cattle care. I helped with sorting heavies into the calving pasture, pairing out and periodic checking for calving problems. We split the night checking in the middle of the night so that we could overlap each other in the daytime for the few jobs that required two people

The first year, we didn’t have many heifers, so the calving difficulty didn’t seem so oppressive. However, the percentage of assisted births was far too high—though that was too long ago for me to remember the exact numbers. We were trying to grow rapidly so the next year we calved a lot of heifers. This time we didn’t have to check the numbers to recognize that we were pulling too many calves. 

I don’t remember if I helped calve for a third year, but about that time, we started having some senior veterinary students come to the ranch for obstetrical rotations during our heifer calving. I stayed close to the heifer calving for a number of years.

Many of the calves born before due date, and well over half were, came with no problem. However, calves continued to be born, from the same sire, for another 7-10 days. Guess what? The picture changed. Each successive day we pulled a higher percentage of the calves born that day. We used the same sire on enough large groups to be sure of the pattern.

With this much experience and information, we started to ask some questions:

  • How can calves from the same bull have so much difference in gestation length?
  • Were our heifers too small at calving? You know I favor minimal development ofreplacement heifers.
  • Can we find a better calving ease bull with perhaps less variation in gestation length? What are the genetics for that?
  • What happens when you use a calving ease bull on first-calf heifers, but the cowherd has been bred to bulls for growth with much less, if any, attention paid to calving ease or birth weight? So what if the heifer you are now assisting was born to a cow that was born to a cow and so on— do you see the pattern? If a heifer was born to a cow with no calving ease genetics, can we expect any bull to be a complete calving ease bull when the heifer provides half of the calf’s genetic makeup and the entire prenatal environment?

I’d like to tell you that we found quick answers to each of these questions and fixed the problem quickly. We didn’t–it was slow. In my 18 years there, we reduced dystocia in heifers by more than 50%. I wanted it to be faster, but we were not using Wagyu or Corriente bulls to get easy calving. We wanted a level of performance, along with calving ease, using the breeds that were in our composite. My successors have cut dystocia in half again, and now pasture calve some heifers day and night without a night check.

There are a few answers:
  • You can breed to Wagyu or Corriente bulls if you have a good market for the calves and you wish to let the heifers calve with little or no checking.
  • You can continue to “minimally” develop your heifers and get calving ease.
  • We moved the calving season from late February and March to April. My successors have moved it to May. They seem to calve easier in a later calving season.
  • We also shortened the heifer breeding season to 30 days. When the gestational due date arrived for the last day of the breeding season, we induced all remaining heifers to get heifer calving season over and to let the calf do its growing on the outside of the cow.
  • We began to cull every cow that had a calving problem and any heifer that required anything more than a little assist—no calf puller.
  • We raised your own bulls. A bull for heifers had to be born unassisted to a first calf heifer and come from a sire with appropriate calving EPDs. We also had an upper limit for that bull calf’s birthweight.
  • When buying bulls, don’t look at the individual birth weight. An EPD is far more predictive of the performance of offspring than individual weights. You can also ignore or pay little attention to the birth weight EPD. While birth weight EPDs are closely correlated with calving ease, it is calving ease that you want; so look closely at the “calving ease direct” and “calving ease maternal” EPDs and keep them in balance if you are raising your own replacement heifers. You want calves that can be born unassisted and heifers that can calve unassisted.
  • There may be some antagonism between “calving ease direct” and “calving ease maternal,” so you will want to ensure that you don’t focus on just one of those traits. Also, remember that your cows are the mothers of your replacement heifers. Therefore, you want to ensure a reasonable level of calving ease in the sires used in your mature cowherd so that heifers can calve unassisted.

When I was younger, I would tell people I was calving or we would hear the question, “Are you calving?” For far too long, we did way too much of the calving.  I’m surely glad that I finally learned that we are not supposed to calve; the heifers are.

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1971 Ford F250

1971 Ford F250 Ranger XLT 360 cubic Inch w/4sp Manual Transmission $8,500 65,942 Original easy miles Tires – 99% tread AC – Equipped Interior – Red cloth bench seats (Original) Ex…

Source: 1971 Ford F250

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5 Tips for Actually Enjoying Business With Family and Friends

By Jake Johnson

If you’ve worked with loved ones, you know that there are many pluses: a strong sense of camaraderie, a high level of trust and a long relational history that makes having discussions with candor easier to name a few.

But there are lots of minuses too. Because a family business is both “head” and “heart,” as a PWC 2014 Family Business Survey calls it. Focusing on both building the business and keeping peace with a loved one can be hard.

I’ve worked with family and friends for nearly half of my professional career. My first real job out of university was working at my uncle’s commercial real estate firm. Later, when I was a freelance writer and editor, he was my client as well (talk about dicey!). I also founded a successful creative agency with three close friends. Along the way, I learned a few lessons about how to work—and not work—with family and friends.

  1. Find Space for Objectivity

One of the hardest parts of working with close friends and family is creating objective spaces in the business. A smart business owner knows how to divine what conversations and decisions he or she should handle personally versus delegating to another person in the business.

As a fresh college graduate, when I asked my uncle if he had any positions at his company, he was excited at the prospect of me joining his firm. But he left the interview process and hiring decisions to another manager on his team, who had a clear directive to NOT show favoritism.

Other conversations that require this level of objectivity include discussions on compensation, promotions and even disciplinary actions.

Don’t have a team member who can be the objective counterpart? Consider involving a third-party mediator who can lay initial ground rules and call somebody out if those rules are impinged.

  1. Create Clear Areas of Ownership

Clearly defining areas of ownership in the business is as important as articulating the ground rules of that ownership.

I know the importance of this firsthand. When I started my agency with three close friends as partners, we didn’t clearly articulate who owned what areas of the business. This resulted in unnecessary conflict and frustration.

The lack of ownership and ground rules resulted in no clear way to rectify and bring closure to disagreements. So they often simmered in a stew of misunderstanding and assumption. Yuck!

Ultimately, this lack of clear ownership resulted in the dissolution of the partnership in an effort to preserve friendship. In hindsight, we would have been wise to do the hard work of defining roles and rules ahead of time.

  1. Utilize Indirect Management

I worked for my uncle for more than five years. Until the last year, I was managed by other leaders in the business. Not surprisingly, the last year was the most challenging.

Being managed by others allowed for mitigation both of accusations of favoritism and for drawing clear lines between business and family. It was only as I worked closer and closer with my uncle that comments like “heir apparent” started casually floating around. The personal difficulty in knowing how to relate to my uncle as both family and my boss grew immensely.

The closer one works with family members, the more opportunity there is for uncomfortable situations to arise. Creating indirect management avenues within the business allows for some distance between family and friends and greatly helps to mitigate these cases.

  1. Leave Shop Talk at the Office

This one is hard. When you spend so much time and energy building a business with loved ones, conversations outside the office naturally slide into shop talk. While it’s occasionally okay to dabble in business conversations outside the office, it’s important to intentionally limit them—especially during large family gatherings and the holidays. No one wants to hear you talk shop over Thanksgiving dinner!

Two important benefits come from this.

First, it recognizes that the relationship is richer than just a business one. The strength of family and friendship is a true bond created over a lifetime of shared interests, successes, struggles and joys. Continually talking about work quickly sucks the joy out of a relationship.

Second, it gives your other family members a break. Believe it or not, your spouse, your children and others close to you don’t care about your business like you do, and they don’t care to hear about it all the time. Both in friendship and family, your bonds extend beyond yourself. Respecting others in your circle includes limiting your business conversations outside the office. Everyone, including you, will be happier for it.

  1. Make Purpose the Boss

One friend of mine, who works in a family business, laments that his more-traditional father often stymies his fresh ideas for marketing and growing the business. With ideas continually shot down, he’s resorted to “waiting it out” until the business finally passes to him in order to run it the way he wants to.

These types of conflict are a direct result of not having a clearly articulated purpose for the business. In a purpose vacuum, those with the most authority often feel threatened by new ideas that diminish their impact and authority. But when those in power exercise that power in service of a shared purpose, every idea is evaluated on whether it furthers the purpose or not. This is the essence of making purpose the boss, to borrow a phrase from my friends at the executive coaching firm Conversant.

By making purpose the boss, you create an environment in which different ideas can flourish no matter who brings them to the table. You are appealing to how they could impact the purpose rather than to subjective opinions on the ideas themselves.


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Just How Bad Did the Replacement Heifer Market Crash?

As America’s cow herd dropped to 60-year lows two years ago, ranchers saw an economic incentive to save and breed replacement heifers. Demand for the young females spiked, creating a profitable niche market which now appears to have flamed out.

Heifer prices were strong throughout 2013 and 2014 as the U.S. cowherd rebuilt and prices rose. Profits were high for those who capitalized on developing breeding heifers during the market rally. Now, developing heifers isn’t as attractive to those who bought high-priced heifer calves in the spring with hopes of selling higher-priced bred cattle in the fall.

The past year saw bred and open heifer markets go through a downward spiral. It followed similar beef market trends witnessed throughout 2015 heading into 2016, as fat cattle and calf prices retreated to prices last seen in 2013.

Video Volatility

Video auctions provided an example of the volatility of  selling replacements. In October 2013, for instance, Superior Livestock Auction held its first replacement female sale. Bred heifers topped out at $2,125 for the inaugural sale where 9,000 head of breeding stock were offered, including cows, pairs and open heifers.

Demand was strong and prices for bred heifers continued to rise at the Select Female Auction. The market high reached $3,250 at both the September and November sales in 2014.

At the latest female video auction on Dec. 18 bred heifers sold from $1,450 to $2,125 per head, and open replacements went on the block at $1,175 to $1,325. In 2014, the same auction had much better numbers, with the price floor being higher than 2015’s ceiling. Bred heifers sold for $2,175 to $3,000 in 2014, with replacements going for $2,050 to $2,250.


“I think the decline was a combination of the lower cattle prices combined with an oversupply of heifers,” says Danny Jones, president of Superior Livestock.

Jones estimates the bred heifer price would have fallen at least $200 even if the feeder calf price had maintained at the $225/cwt. level. He adds it was a good idea to develop heifers. The only problem: “everybody had the same idea.”

Andrew Griffith, economist with University of Tennessee, observed more producers in his area holding back or buying heifers which should have probably gone to the feedlot.

“I guess they thought we needed to grow the cattle herd all over night, and they threw out the window that we need high-quality heifers,” Griffith says. “Those low-quality heifers should be on your dinner plate.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture data indicates replacement heifer retention has been on the rise for at least the past two years. Both in 2011 and 2012 (no data was available from 2013) the replacement heifer herd was at 4.2 million head. Then in 2014 it jumped 400,000 head to 4.6 million. Last year retention rates improved 7 percent with 4.9 million total beef replacement heifers.

Established Sales Not Immune

In the fescue covered pastures of Kentucky, a group of like-minded cattlemen gathered their resources the last 12 years to develop replacement heifers.

Quality heifers bred to calving ease bulls and cared for with a preset vaccination program has helped build business for Central Kentucky Premier Heifer Sale (CKPHS). Even when the cattle market started to trend downward in the spring, CKPHS’s June 2015 auction averaged $2,965 for fall-calving heifers.

“It sure has been a different cycle here for us,” says David Sandusky, a Lebanon, Ky. farmer and chairman for CKPHS. “We’ve seen a huge decrease in price and demand for these heifers.”

The latest CKPHS auction in November for spring calving heifers saw prices drop more than $750 per heifer, an average of $2,201.

“We still have about 500 heifers that we don’t have a home for. Demand is very depressed,” Sandusky adds.

Another established heifer sale has seen similar price fluctuation. November’s Show-Me-Select Program hosted by University of Missouri Extension saw prices dip after reaching records in 2014. At this fall’s auction bred heifers sold for $2,477. The sale at the Joplin Regional Stockyards was down an average of $412 per head compared to 2014.

The Show-Me-Select heifer sales saw softer prices in 2015 after a record year for the various auctions across Missouri. Photo by University of Missouri Extension

Two months later Joplin Regional Stockyards (JRS) hosted their own female sale on Jan. 14 with most of the cattle originating from local farms. Approximately 500 bred heifers sold from $1,400 to $2,000, with the majority of those females slated to calve in February and March. Cattle went to neighboring states, like Oklahoma and Arkansas, which are still rebuilding from drought.

JRS co-owner Jackie Moore notes the amount of cattle walking through the ring wasn’t as high as he would expect. “I think a lot of those people have quite a bit of money tied up in those heifers.”

Moore believes many bred heifers will be calved this spring and sold as pairs.

Another popular marketing option might be to hold those females back for a second breeding. Joplin’s latest female sale saw second-alf heifers bring $2,000 to $2,400.

The participating producers of CKPHS have similar plans with the 500 head of remaining spring bred heifers. The surplus heifers will be calved out and rebred to sell next year as three-year-olds.

“There are lots of people who have bred heifers of various quality,” Sandusky says. “I think that’s part of the problem. There were a ton of heifers that were bred and they weren’t all what we would consider cow quality.”

Long-term, Sandusky believes the market drop will remove some of the one-time people out of the bred heifer market who jumped in to make a quick profit.

“We hope that reputation gets out there that we’re not one-time players. We’re not a flash in the pan. We’re here for the long haul,” Sandusky says of the 12-year program.

Recycled Cattle Cycle

The influx of cheap replacement heifers has created a buyers’ market. Creating an opportunity to buy bred heifers at a reduced rate to expand or start a cow herd. It is also a case of the markets working in a cyclical nature.

“Periodically, the market reminds you that what goes up must go down,” says Stephen Koontz, economist with Colorado State University Extension.

Superior Livestock’s recent December sale was down 21.6% for market-high heifers compared to the April auction. CKPHS had an even more dramatic drop of 25.8% in five months between sales.

“The folks that were buying open heifers and selling them as bred heifers a few months later made really good money when that market was rallying. Now that it’s turned the corner it won’t be the case,” Koontz says. “I think that strategy is out the window for the next couple of years.”

Producers are seeing a traditional cattle cycle, says Lance Zimmerman, an analyst with CattleFax.

The highs for the cycle were reached in late 2014 or early 2015. Prices for calves dropped $550 per head from the fall 2014 to fall 2015.

This bred heifer went through the Central Kentucky Premier Heifer Sales program and would have sold when demand for females was at an all time high.Photo by Wyatt Bechtel

“A good rule-of-thumb as an industry is your bred female cost during expansion era peak is likely to be 1.5 to 1.7 times the value of your calves,” Zimmerman says. “Producers are just bidding appropriately now with that price depreciation into the value they’re willing to pay for bred females.”

Profitability for those producers developing heifers primarily depended on the price cattle were bought at prior to breeding.

“The buy side is so incredibly important to the cost of that bred female because that is the biggest cost you’re likely going to have in developing that heifer,” Zimmerman says.

Prices for a 550 lb. weaned calf at the end of 2015 were around $180/cwt. The cow would then be worth $1,500 to $1,650.

At end of 2014 prices were near $280/cwt. for weaned calves. A bred cow was worth $2,300 to $2,500.

“You’re talking about a market that basically gave up $900 per head based on what we’re implying with calf values,” Zimmerman says.

Despite those losses, Zimmerman expects to see cow herd expansion continue into 2018.

“We’re likely to return this beef cow herd back to 31-32 million head as we get to the peak of the expansion,” Zimmerman says.

2015 (and Maybe 2016) Better Than 2013

Beef producers don’t have to look too far in the rearview mirror to witness a lower market year in 2013.

USDA calculates choice steers averaged $148.12/cwt. in 2015. This year prices are projected to drop to $132.14/cwt. For 2013, the final fat cattle average price was only $125.89/cwt.

“We’ve gone from this period of record prices for 18 months to a pretty sharp drop in prices in the fourth quarter of 2015. We’re kind of getting back to where things used to be,” says John Nalivka, president of Sterling Marketing, Inc., Vale, Ore.

Heifer prices two years ago for the Show-Me-Select sale at Joplin were $350 behind 2015, averaging $2,127 in 2013.

When this bred heifer sold through the Central Kentucky Premier Heifer Sales program prices had dropped 25.8% in five months. Photo by Wyatt Bechtel

“It looks to me that we’re going to stay above 2013, but 2014 and 2015 are behind us and we’re not going back (to those prices),” Nalivka adds.

Cow-calf profitably as calculated by Sterling Marketing was $243.05 per cow in 2013. Profits for 2015 were $429 per cow, $97 less than the year prior. Cow-calf margins are projected to drop in 2016 to $237 per cow.

“The thing I think we can count on is herd expansion will bring more calves this year, increased production and lower prices. It has been a while since we’ve had that, but that is what’s coming,” Koontz says.

Koontz believes that downward trend will continue for quite some time until calf prices discourage producers from holding back more replacement heifers.


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High Dollar Bulls Build Better Heifers

Mike Mutch uses bulls worth six figures on his beef farm near Silk Hope, N.C. That may not be unheard of in the cattle industry, but for a part-time producer with 38 cows, it’s a definite point of pride. What makes it possible? Artificial insemination (AI). The technology allows producers like Mutch to tap into the country’s best beef genetics. He credits it for his top-notch Angus cow herd, built over the past 15 years.

Mutch has a unique business plan. He AIs commercial Angus cows with semen from top sires. He then breeds heifers from the cross and keeps the young females for one or two calves. After that, he sells proven three- to four-year-old cows to other cattlemen building herds.

“I’m focused on the replacement female market. A lot of cattlemen don’t want to deal with calving heifers, and I can sell them — proven young cows that have raised outstanding calves,” says Mutch.


To maximize production of females, Mutch uses gender-sorted semen. Sorted semen costs approximately twice as much as regular semen from the same sire, and the straws contain smaller quantities.

Gender-sorted semen helps a producer like Mutch produce higher percentages of female offspring. It can also work for a higher percentage of males — in the case of a producer looking to produce bulls or more steers for the feedlot, for instance. While not perfect, the gender-sorted, or sexed, semen has a success rate of 58%, says Mutch’s veterinarian, Richard Kirkman, of Siler City, N.C. Kirkman AIs Mutch’s herd.


Using AI, a producer could pick the best 2% of all bulls in a breed to sire the next generation of calves. That’s one of the huge advantages the technology offers the industry.

“There’s no way commercial producers can afford to buy that kind of sire for their cow herds,” says veterinarian Dee Whittier, a bovine specialist at Virginia Tech. “You may also inject genetics from another breed into your herd, without buying bulls from that breed.”

Whittier has a set of costs-versus-benefits that help producers considering using AI on commercial herds. He says based on a 100-cow herd, AI costs are approximately $49.50 per cow. These costs include drugs used to synchronize estrus in cows to prepare them for breeding, the cost of AI semen, and the cost of AI technicians and labor to bring cows through the chute three times.

He adds that semen companies often give volume discounts, so commercial producers can purchase semen from proven bulls with solid Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs) for less than $20 per straw.

“My philosophy for breeding commercial cattle is that you don’t chase the newest and hottest bulls with the highest semen costs,” Whittier says. “You can economize on semen and still get very good, proven bulls.”

In addition, thanks to synchronization, research shows a 100-cow herd bred using AI produces an average of three more calves, compared to a natural service herd.


Virginia cattleman Terry Slusher says he estimates the return on AI with his commercial beef herd at approximately $177 more per cow/calf pair. Based near Floyd, he says he pencils that out this way: Synchronized breeding on 160 cows means 89% of Slusher’s calves are born the first 30 days of his calving season. These early-born calves gain approximately 2 pounds per day and are heavier at weaning than calves born later in the season. With retained ownership of steers, he says AI steers are worth more at harvest due to heavier hot carcass weights and a higher percentage of Choice or better quality grades.

Over the last year, the “return to cow” for AI-sired calves was $177 more than for calves sired by natural service, says Slusher. AI-sired steers averaged 38.6 pounds heavier on hot carcass weight. Slusher’s AI conception rate is 68% (over a five-year period). He notes the conception rates improve as cows become conditioned to AI protocols.

“I can’t imagine anyone being a full-time cattle farmer and not using AI,” says Slusher. “AI breeding is a lot of work, but it pays off when you see calves sired by top bulls.”

AI School Payoff. When Brian Melloan took over Channarock Farms from his father-in-law, Charlie Jones, in 2014, the 38-year-old cattleman from Rockfield, Ky., headed straight for the AI School at Mississippi State University.

Channarock Farms has long been on the cutting edge for Beefmaster seedstock, and Melloan knew he wanted to use AI to freshen up the herd’s genetics. He used semen from the country’s top Beefmaster bulls.

The move was not without precedent. Jones had also relied on AI to build the Beefmaster herd on the family’s western Kentucky ranch.

“I see AI as one of the key tools to keep us marching forward in the cattle business,” says Melloan. “AI gives us the ability to use the best bulls of the breed to build up carcass quality and weight gains in our cattle.”

Using the techniques and practices he learned at AI School, Melloan bred 175 cows from late 2014 to early 2015. His success rate was an outstanding 75%. He’s looking forward to selling AI-sired bulls to commercial producers.

“The commercial cattleman is our No. 1 customer,” says Melloan. “As producers restock herds, they want Beefmaster bulls that will put more pounds on calves at weaning and also have the genetics for carcass characteristics feedlot buyers are looking for.”

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More tools for selecting replacements for older heifers

Two key factors to a heifer being “successful” and remaining in the cowherd are 1) she becomes pregnant in the first breeding season and 2) she calves unassisted and rebreeds quickly.

By performing a breeding soundness exam (BSE) on heifers prior to breeding, producers can eliminate these factors as potential stumbling blocks and improve reproductive efficiency. A BSE of replacement heifers should include body weight, days of age, reproductive tract scores, and, if desired, pelvic area data.

The timing of a BSE will depend largely on nutrition, breeding and marketing plans for specific herds. By conducting the exam at least six weeks prior to breeding, producers have a chance to correct low body weights, but it offers less certainty about the percentage of heifers that are cycling at the start of the breeding season.

Performing the exams just prior to breeding gives greater certainty about the percentage of heifers that are cycling, but it doesn’t allow producers a chance to correct any potential weight issues.

Reproductive tract scoring is a method of evaluating reproductive tract maturity and cyclicity in pubertal heifers. In order to determine if a heifer is cycling, the reproductive tract is palpated to determine the presence of the corpus luterum or large follicles in the ovaries and to estimate the size of the uterus.

Based on these characteristics, heifers are assigned a reproductive tract score (RTS) of 1-5, with a higher RTS being more desirable.

Determining the RTS of heifers allows producers to select those that have good reproductive potential ,and cull others with poor reproductive potential. This evaluation also allows producers to identify and remove freemartins, immature heifers, heifers without a complete reproductive tract or any heifers that are already pregnant.

Calving difficulty or dystocia increases calf death loss, cow mortality, labor, veterinary costs, delays the cow’s return to estrus and decreases rebreeding efficiency. It can also lead to decreased weaning weights due to breeding heifers and cows to calving ease low birth-weight bulls.

According to Gene H. Deutscher, University of Nebraska Extension Beef Specialist, calving difficulty results in an estimated economic loss of $750 million annually nationwide.

Since a major cause of dystocia is a disproportion between calf size at birth and cow pelvic area, by conducting a BSE on heifers and collecting pelvic measurement data, producers can reduce the occurrence of dystocia in their herds.

Pelvic area is measured in square centimeters (cm2) by multiplying the width of the pelvis by the height of the pelvis. That number is then divided by a conversion factor, determined by heifer age and weight, to estimate the weight of a calf that a heifer should be able to deliver without difficulty.

For example, if estimating the deliverable calf birth weight of a 12-month-old that weighs 700 pounds:

  • Measured pelvic height = 14 cm
  • Measured pelvic width = 12 cm
  • Calculated pelvic area = 14 cm x 12 cm = 168 cm2
  • Conversion factor = 2.2
  • Estimated deliverable calf weight = 168 ÷ 2.2 = 76 pounds

Bigger heifers don’t always have the largest pelvic areas, and heifers of the same size can have drastically different pelvic areas. By pelvic measuring, producers can eliminate heifers that have proportionally small pelvic areas and eliminate any heifers that may have abnormally shaped pelvises.

Since pelvic area measurements are correlated to mature cows size and calf birth weight, it is a good idea to use this tool to set a minimum pelvic size as a culling criteria (ex. 140 cm2) rather than selecting heifers that have the largest pelvic area.

Conducting a BSE on heifers can help producers eliminate several potential problems and select heifers that have good reproductive potential. For those that wish to know more about reproductive tract scoring, pelvic measuring, or want the table containing the conversion factors, check out the Breeding Soundness Examination for Replacement Heifers publication under the Crops and Livestock tab on our website or give me a call.

For more information, contact the Marais des Cygnes Extension District Offices in Paola, 913-294-4306, and Mound City, 913-795-2829.

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Why we need to let Mother Nature select replacement heifers

by in Strategic Planning For The Ranch

For some time, I have been an advocate that we cannot select replacement heifers—we should instead let the bulls and Mother Nature select them for us. To do this, I have promoted retaining and exposing most of your heifer calf crop for a short breeding season—no longer than 30 days.

Naturally you will cull the obvious poor doers, the poor dispositions and those with obvious physical trait problems. However, don’t assume that you can judge the rest very well.

A number of years ago, a group of us measured, scored and visually evaluated as many traits as we could think of that might relate to a heifer’s income-generating capability as a cow. While we did not follow this long enough to draw any definite conclusions, nothing that we measured, by itself or in combination, could predict enough of the economic difference in outcomes to confirm our belief that we could, in fact, select replacement heifers. My observations on many heifers since then have strengthened my conviction that we can’t select heifers accurately. But, the bulls and our environment can!

I now do quite a bit of speaking to cattlemen’s groups of one kind or another. After one of those talks, I was asked if I would consider using genomic testing to make a first selection of heifers and then use the short breeding season. I responded that I would not, at least not in that order. The next question was, “Why not?”

The heifers that you have are what they are; and while you would like them to be as good genetically as possible, those that breed early in their first breeding season have a tremendous competitive advantage over the other heifers in lifetime production—they will breed earlier in subsequent breeding seasons and thus wean a bigger calf and will produce at least one more calf in their lifetime.

All the other genetic traits that you might look for cannot compete economically withearly breeding of yearling heifers. Even though I understand and appreciate the power and value of genomic information, I am still unsure of our ability to balance traits economically and to avoid genetic antagonisms.

After pregnancy checking and finding the pregnant heifers, I might then use genomic testing as part of my culling criteria for those heifers as they progress in age, but only if I have an excess of young pregnant cows. If, for example, I were to have an excess of pregnant heifers after culling the typical culls (opens, dries, bad disposition, raised a poor calf, ugly); I might then use genomics to select the next order of culling from the bred heifers or older cows. My inclination would be to keep the heifers and cull a few more cows.

I also recommend “minimal development” of replacement heifers, which means they are treated similar to stocker cattle between weaning and breeding. This results in a breeding weight that will be closer to 55% of expected mature cow weight than the 65% that is so often recommended.

That is another reason to put the genomic testing behind the pregnancy testing. When changing to minimal development and short exposure of heifers, you should not expect a high pregnancy rate; thus the need to keep a high number of heifers. However, selling the open heifers should be nicely profitable. We should remember that yearling operations are usually more profitable than cow-calf operations.

There might be situations where you cannot develop heifers adequately with a “minimal” approach. If that is the case, it is probable that your cows are not a good fit for your environment. Remember, to your cows, the environment is the natural environment plus whatever you add to it. You may need to move toward “minimal” development and reduce the length of the breeding season a little more slowly.

Selecting new bulls to fit the environment would certainly help speed up the process. The right seedstock supplier along with information on the dam and closely related females of bulls should help you select bulls to sire daughters that will fit your environment.

I have recently become aware of a growing number of commercial producers who are raising some or all of their own bulls to reduce bull cost and improve genetic adaptation to their environment. They tend to buy semen or a few excellent bulls to infuse new genetics. Some even insist that no bull can be kept from a cow that has calved later than the first 25-30 days of the calving season, ever. In other words, a bull born to a two-year-old will not be used if his dam does not calve very early as a three-year-old. Genomic information may then be used to help in the final selection of these bulls.

Heifer selection is the starting point for future cow herds. Ideally, heifers will get pregnant in the first 21 days of the breeding season. That’s why I like a very short breeding season. Ideally, bulls that are intended to produce replacement heifers should be born to cows that always calve in the first 21 days of the calving season. From there, you make other selection choices and use the tools and technology that are appropriate for your goals.

Remember, the production goal of having high pregnancy rates early in the breeding season year after year starts with heifers that breed and calve early in their first year. This approach begs the question, “Why are you willing to accept a lower conception rate on yearling heifers to find those that will breed early?” The answer is: the open heifers are growing and will gain more pounds per acre than cow-calf pairs and will usually generate more profit per acre than the cow-calf pairs. You then have a life-time bonus in cows that will tend to calve earlier and wean bigger calves.

Burke 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 Sales Bred Heifer Prices

Victoria G. Myers Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Mon Nov 30, 2015 09:54 AM CST

Eldon Cole said, frankly speaking, he did not expect it. The Extension livestock specialist for the University of Missouri was talking about the Show-Me-Select Heifer sale that took place November 20 at Joplin Regional Stockyards, bringing an average of nearly $2,500 per head.

Even with prices down from the spring, commercial bred heifers made a strong showing at the November 20 Show-Me-Select sale at Joplin. (Photo courtesy Southwest Missouri Beef Cattle Improvement Association)

“I figured we’d be lucky to average $2,000,” Cole said of the sale that moved 293 head of bred heifers, all from herds enrolled in the state’s replacement heifer improvement program.

A breakdown by breeding category showed buyers are still paying for quality, and prefer heifers bred by artificial insemination (AI). Tier one AI heifers brought on average $2,592; Tier one bull-bred heifers brought an average of $2,318. Tier two AI heifers had an even stronger showing, bringing on average $2,871 per head. Tier two heifers are out of proven sires and bred to proven sires.

There were 20 consignors in this first Show-Me-Select sale of the fall season, all together they earned $725,850.

Gilmore Farms, from Aurora, saw the peak price for the sale at $3,200 each on five heifers. They produce Angus-Hereford crossbred heifers. The Red Angus heifers from Circle S. Chicks of Stark City, brought the second highest average price of $2,838 per head.

The Show-Me-Select sale draws a lot of repeat buyers each year. David Patterson, Extension specialist and founder of the program, reported that of the 39 buyers at this sale, 21 had purchased through the program before. Buyers came from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas.

All heifers in the sale are guaranteed pregnant, and have been inspected for soundness prior to the sale.

Going back to the Show-Me-Select spring sales, this most recent report shows prices trending down. For comparison, the May 2 Show-Me-Select sale at Fruitland Livestock Auction, placed 213 heifers. Average per head price overall was $2,743, $266 more than the most recent fall sale. Tier I AI heifers averaged $2,758 at the spring sale, $166 more than in the fall sale; and Tier II AI heifers averaged $2,877 at the spring sale, just $6 more than in the fall sale.

Cole said that while there is a downward trend in prices, it could be worse.

“The market has been pretty brutal the last two months on all classes of cattle,” he said. “The cow-calf and replacement heifer trend is not down as dramatically as feeders and finished cattle however.”

He anticipated prices for the next three Show-Me-Select sales would be higher than those set at the November 20th sale in Joplin.

“Show-Me-Select sales here in Missouri have a pattern you can almost take the bank and predict. Our sale [at Joplin] is always the first one and quite frequently brings the lowest prices. The other [fall] sales traditionally will out-sell our heifers. Part of it is geography of the state and the conservatism of buyers in the southern areas here. The other thing is that this sale is almost all commercial heifers, but when you look at Fruitland, for example, you will see more purebred consignors and you would expect those animals to attract a higher dollar value.”

The three remaining Show-Me-Select sales this year include: Kingsville Livestock Auction (November 28), Fruitland Livestock Sales (December 5) and F&T Livestock Market at Palmyra (December 12).

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Roadblocks to Ranch Profitability

Here Are Eight Biggest Roadblocks to Ranch Profitability

The Grazier’s Art

Step one is to open your mind to change and add new ideas.

Published on: June 19, 2014

By Jim Elizondo

I took part in a discussion the other day on the biggest roadblocks to improving ranch profitability. Experience and logic tells me there are eight common problems.

Here’s my list:

1. Lack of interest in learning correct grazing management. This can increase profits by two to three times.

2. Lack of interest in learning marketing knowledge. This can be another way to greatly increase profits.

3. Lack of interest in learning low-stress stockmanship. This is a proven way to reduce medicine costs and have higher performance.

4. Lack of interest in protein supplementation when it’s needed or cost effective. Well-applied supplementation in certain environments can eliminate hay feeding and thus save around $100 per cow per year, particularly for people using low octane/high fiber stockpiled forages.

5. An incorrect mineral program leads to inefficiency in forage utilization in places where there are mineral imbalances and forages with poor mineral content.

6. Unadapted genetics: The more challenging the environment the more important it is to have adapted genetics.

7. High-octane genetics in low-octane forage environments is always a mistake. High-octane forages are those with moderate growth which hold quality well. Low-octane environments are characteristically high-growth environments with much lignification of the forages.

8. Use of outdated or unprofitable traditions. Usually it’s characterized by a phrase like, “We have always done it like this.” A closed mind is like a closed parachute, it won’t work until you open it.”

Solving these issues is the crux of the Regenerative Grazing schools taught by Johann Zietsman and me. You can learn more about these upcoming schools on my website.

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Heifers at any Cost

Trey Patterson tries to be logical about the costs and returns of cow herd management. For example, as a Padlock Ranch manager, he knows developing heifers can be among an outfit’s most expensive enterprises.

Conventional wisdom is that because it’s relatively expensive to develop heifers into productive members of the herd, ranchers can reduce costs by maximizing heifer pregnancy rates. Patterson, Dayton, WY, doesn’t necessarily buy into that logic.

“We’ve heard time and again about the importance of getting heifers bred at high rates,” Patterson says. The former South Dakota State University Extension beef specialist believes this practice can lead ranchers into a cycle of adding more and more costs to further boost pregnancy rates.

In fact, Patterson says a production-driven approach to developing heifers may negatively impact ranch profitability.

It’s generally recommended heifers be developed to 60-65% of mature weight by the start of breeding season. But, Patterson says, many producers develop heifers to an average 70% of mature weight to ensure as many as possible reach the target range.

Patterson recognizes heifers developed to lower weights can have longer postpartum intervals. Research also shows a clear relationship between dietary energy levels during development and heifer pregnancy rates.

“Our point at Padlock Ranch is that the degree and timing of inputs into heifer development systems can have a big effect on net returns,” says CEO Wayne Fahsholtz, Ranchester, WY. “We think it’s critical that heifer development be approached from an economic standpoint, not simply a production-based perspective.”

Show ’em the data

Armed with recent and ongoing research data showing heifer-development systems should be based on economic decisions, not just production-based outcomes, Patterson and Fahsholtz are combining two major concepts:

  • Developing heifers to a lower percentage of body weight.
  • Developing heifers on range.

“If heifers will breed at 50% of mature weight,” Patterson says, “we believe we can take advantage of available native range to develop heifers.”

First, they examined Rick Funston’s data from Nebraska challenging the 65% of mature weight recommendations. In each of three years, 80 crossbred heifers were developed on meadow hay, wheat midds, cracked corn and a supplement pellet. Corn was adjusted so each group would reach the desired target of either 53% or 58% of mature body weight (low and high gain, respectively).

Heifer-pregnancy rates were not statistically different between treatments (92% and 88% for the low and high gain, respectively). In addition, there were no differences between treatments in pregnancy rates of these heifers with their second (average of 91%), third (93%) or fourth calves (96%).

Heifer-pregnancy rates weren’t statistically different between treatments (92% and 88% for the low and high gain, respectively). There were no differences in heifer-pregnancy rates (87% and 90% for low and high gain, respectively). There were also no differences in pregnancy rates of these heifers with the second calf (average 91%).

Then they looked to University of Nebraska research led by K.W. Creighton, which compared 261 heifers under two heifer-development systems over three years. This included:

  1. Heifers developed to 50% of mature weight prior to breeding with a 60-day breeding period (low gain), or
  2. Heifers developed to 55% of mature weight with a 45-day breeding season (high gain).

The heifers were developed during the winter on meadow hay, protein supplement and whole corn. Corn was adjusted so heifers would reach desired target weights. Similar to that described above, there were no differences in heifer-pregnancy rates (87% and 90% for low and high gain, respectively). There were also no differences in pregnancy with the second calf (average 91%).

Evaluating the economics

As a follow-up to the performance data, other research evaluated the economics of these heifer-development systems. When averaged over an 11-year period, the low-gain treatment in Funston’s study resulted in $27 less cost/bred heifer than the high-gain treatment (Table 1, page 54). In the Creighton research, the average cost of developing a heifer was $23 less for the low-gain than the high-gain animals.

“The low-input systems resulted in similar performance and lower costs than the systems that developed heifers to a higher percentage of body weight,” Patterson explains.

When they arbitrarily reduced yearling-pregnancy rates in their economic analysis, the cost of developing a heifer to 53% of mature weight at first pregnancy actually went down. The inputs into that system were low enough that over an 11-year period, there was a monetary gain to selling open heifers.

Another interesting aspect was the cost of a second-calf heifer. Using Creighton’s 2004 data, the cost of developing a 2-year-old bred heifer actually went down, due to the price received for the first calf when averaged across 11 years.

“However, if pregnancy rates of the second breeding were arbitrarily reduced, then the cost of developing a second-calf heifer went up,” Patterson warns. “Therefore, pregnancy rate from the second breeding was important, as selling open 2-year-olds was not profitable.”

Other research at Colorado State University indicates the bred-heifer area may need more management attention. The data indicate that to achieve a 10% increase in 2-year-old pregnancy, a rancher could afford to pay $27/head before the first breeding (during replacement-heifer development) or $57 after she was bred (as a bred heifer).

“Do you think you would be more likely to increase 2-year-old pregnancy by spending $27 prior to first breeding, or $57 on the bred heifer?” Patterson asks. “This tells us we have more leverage to influence production, without increasing costs, with the bred heifer than the replacement.”

Back at the ranch

In October 2003, the Padlock fence-line weaned 402 heifers weighing 439 lbs. on native range. A wheat midds-based, 18% crude protein (CP) range cube was fed for 30 days at a rate of 3 lbs./day. The heifers were then fed a range block (30% CP) at a rate of 2 lbs./day for the remainder of the winter. No hay was fed all winter. Total feed costs were less than 25¢/head/day.

“There was very little sickness in the calves,” Fahsholtz says. “We doctored only 13 heifers.”

Before the Padlock could gain any pregnancy data, however, drought hit. When Fahsholtz had to sell the heifers in June 2004, they weighed about 724 lbs., putting their gain at more than 1 lb./day since weaning. About 1,200 heifers will be developed this winter using native range and hay-crop aftermath.

Having learned development costs can be reduced, Patterson and Fahsholtz believe bred heifers can be developed to return a profit to the operation sooner, or they can sell open heifers off grass for a profit in many years. Fahsholtz adds, “It’s our intent to reduce our cow costs by lengthening the grazing season for all our cows.”

By exposing their heifers for a short period of time, they’ll naturally select heifers that should be productive, low-cost cows through their lifetime.

“We know we’ll probably have a lower conception rate initially,” Fahsholtz says. “But, our membership in Country Natural Beef gives an excellent market for our open heifers.”

“We know we’ll see years when we’ll need to feed more hay when winter grass is not available,” Patterson interjects.

“There also could be situations where grass is worth enough to make it cheaper to feed the heifers than graze them,” Fahsholtz adds. “But ranchers need to make those cost calculations for themselves.”

Selling open heifers can be a paying proposition if development costs are low. “But there will be some years when open-heifer prices are low compared to feed costs, and it may not be profitable to sell opens,” Patterson notes. “Having the yearlings on grass gives some management alternatives during drought as well.”

Other considerations

There are considerations to weigh in developing heifers to less than 60% of mature weight at breeding. There’s likely more risk of lower pregnancy rates with decreasing levels of development.

“That may not be a big problem if you have enough heifers to keep replacements,” Patterson explains. In other words, if selling open heifers doesn’t cost you money, your risk is in generating enough replacements to keep your herd at the desired size. This can be managed by keeping more heifers than you need for replacements.

Fahsholtz notes the Padlock Ranch has a contingency plan if heifers don’t gain as expected. “We’re monitoring the performance of these heifers and will adjust the program if necessary,” he says.

A second concern is calving difficulty in lighter heifers. Some research shows heifers developed to a lower percentage of mature weight experience more dystocia than heifers developed to 65% of mature weight.

“If birth weights are not too high, and proper bulls are selected for breeding heifers, you likely can manage this,” Patterson notes. Padlock heifers are bred to Wagyu bulls, which gives them a special market for the calves while minimizing calving problems.

Another consideration is heterosis.

“Crossbred heifers can reach puberty and breed if developed at 55% of mature weight at breeding, but it isn’t clear if purebred heifers would respond the same way,” Patterson adds.

Developing heifers lighter at breeding may also result in cows smaller at maturity. But Patterson says this could be positive in reducing cow maintenance requirements.

“Range development systems may offer a low-cost way to develop heifers for some operators,” he advises. “There’s significant management leverage in the young cow.”


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