Replacement Beef Heifers: New Herd or Bigger Cost?

2/2/2013 7:00 AM

One important goal of breeding beef cattle is the production of heifers that will form the next generation of genetics in the herd. However, for many smaller breeders there are some distinct reasons why growing, developing and breeding heifers may be costly.

Of course, there are always excuses why a breeder does not want to buy replacement heifers: They are somebody else’s culls, they can bring disease to my farm, how do I know they will perform as well as the ones I raise, and so forth.

Some of the reasons are valid. In the beef market today, it is difficult to find heifers in many areas with herds being rebuilt. But there are always other considerations to successfully create replacement heifers:

They require separate feed and facilities.

We should only project 90 percent of them to get bred, but 100 percent have incurred costs.

They will probably need a different bull and breeding program.

Some of them may die before they are bred or calve.

They take more time to watch at calving because they have more calving problems.

It costs more to feed them.

They wean lighter calves.

Fewer of them get rebred after the first calf.

There are fewer calves to sell in the fall.

Cannot maximize the use of hybrid vigor in a breeding program.

You give up about a third of your annual income compared with selling weaned calves.

The cost of heifers does not end with more expensive feed, more labor, separate feeding facilities, smaller calves and more open cows.

Some recent studies in Nebraska and Montana have shown that nature is at work with heifers through “fetal programming.”

That is, when a cow or heifer has a depleted plane of nutrition while pregnant with a female calf, that female calf will subsequently have a lower reproductive rate. It is nature’s way of adjusting the population to the environment.

What does it cost to get the first calf across the scales from a heifer?

Just add it up: Almost two years of better feed, a smaller sale weight, heifers that did not get bred after being fed for six to nine months, usually two in 10 heifers that will not breed back after the first calf, and other issues.

Legitimate current values put the cost at $1,200 to $1,500. If not your own heifers, what are the alternatives?

The first alternative is replacing cows with mature cows. The genetic improvement may be slowed, but locating cows that have a good health history, have been confirmed bred and have several calves left in them can reduce calving problems, overcome some health issues, do not require separate bulls or feeding facilities, can produce calves without a loss in weaning weight and have a better chance of rebreeding.

One good source of these cows is production sales from purebred breeders who will market healthy, functional cows in an effort to speed up genetic change in their herds.

A second alternative is to have the heifers raised, developed and bred by someone who specializes in this type of program.

Just such a program is available in Pennsylvania with the Pennsylvania Heifer Development Program, which is a joint venture of Penn State Animal Science Extension and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture Livestock Evaluation Center.

Heifers of any breed are consigned to the program from farms across the Northeast, delivered in October, fed rations designed to provide growth without excessive condition (usually 100 percent grass/alfalfa baleage), synchronized, bred by artificial insemination to the owner’s choice of bulls and then returned to the farm.

Now in its third year, the record shows 95 percent of the heifers have been bred, 66 percent were bred to timed artificial insemination with no heat checking, and the total cost averaged $500 to $600 per heifer.

For most producers, an honest evaluation of costs to do the same at home is about the same, but without the labor and facility needs.

Replacement heifers do not come without a cost, and there are alternatives for small breeders to improve their herds and their bottom line by selling their heifers at weaning.

John Comerford is an associate professor of animal science at Penn State University.

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