Many of you probably remember the old Kenny Rogers song from the late 1970's called "The Gambler". It was a popular hit for Rogers and the story in the song was actually developed into a movie. I suppose I just dated myself a bit with this reference! Regardless, the reason I mention this song is that the lyrics have real meaning for today's cow-calf producer and decisions made with heifers from the 2012 calf crop.

Consider a few of these lines from the song: ""If you're gonna play the game, boy, ya gotta learn to play it right."; "Now ev'ry gambler knows that the secret to survivin' is knowin' what to throw away and knowin' what to keep."; "'Cause ev'ry hand's a winner and ev'ry hand's a loser,"; and the classic "You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away and know when to run." While the song refers to gambling while playing cards, the lyrics could just as easily be used by the cow-calf producer when making decisions regarding the 2012 heifer calf crop.

The easy decision with this year's heifer crop would be to take advantage of high feeder cattle prices and cash them in. USDA and CattleFax reported that for the week ending October 5, 2012, 550 lb. feeder steers were bringing $79/head more and 750 lb. feeder steers were bringing $68/head more than the same time period in 2011. Yes, these are steer prices but heifers are still seeing higher prices as well compared to a year ago. Even with historically feed costs, the price for feeder cattle remains strong because there simply are too few cattle to meet the demand.

The fact that we are in such low numbers of beef cattle in this country should also give the producer a reason to consider retaining heifer calves for herd additions/replacements or for future sale opportunities. Numbers have dwindled in this country for a variety of reasons including feed costs, the competition for land, and producers retiring from the business to name a few. However, the most significant reason for the reduction in numbers over the past few years is that a large part of the United States where cow-calf production takes place has experienced significant drought conditions.

Certainly drought was the dominant topic throughout the country this year. Many parts of the country experienced the worst conditions seen since the Dust Bowl years of the 1930's. The impact of the drought has been felt far and wide throughout the cattle industry. Large numbers of animals have been sold to deal with the reduced amount of forages and grains available to feed our beef herd.

There are a couple of key points to consider before you market your 2012 heifer calves. First, the drought is not going to continue forever. It may not end as soon as we want it to in order to provide relief but more normal growing conditions will eventually return. When this occurs, demand for females to put back in herds will increase. I doubt that we will see numbers return to the levels of 20-30 years ago but they will increase. CattleFax reports that bred females are seeing significant demand increases in portions of the Southern Plains and other areas experiencing drought relief. Remember, earlier this year there was a strong demand for bred females and cow-calf pairs until drought quickly extinguished the enthusiasm. 2013 should see a return of similar or greater enthusiasm for females if moisture returns to near-normal levels.

The decision as to whether to retain heifer calves will certainly vary from producer to producer based on each individual situation. Obviously, the availability and cost of one's feed supply will be a significant factor. Do you have enough heifer calves from your herd or are you willing to purchase enough numbers to make heifer development a worthwhile endeavor? Do you have the facilities and infrastructure available to retain or add numbers? What is your labor situation? How good of a marketer are you?

If the decision is made to retain heifer calves produced by the herd or add heifers from outside sources, don't lose sight of the traits of economic importance when selecting replacement heifers. Traits to be considered should include early growth (weaning and yearling weight), fertility, calving ease, milking ability, structural correctness, disposition, frame size, and muscling. Keep heifer calves that were born earlier in the calving season as they were likely produced by more highly fertile females. Do not retain heifers from cows that were problems for whatever reason simply to add numbers.

Heifers kept as replacements or for future sale must be properly developed. Establish the number you want to retain and keep a greater percentage to account for poor performers and open females that will be culled. The target weight concept for heifer development encourages heifers to be two-thirds of their mature weight at breeding time for optimum reproductive performance. There is new research that indicates we may be able to reduce the target weight by a few percentage points but in most cases the heifer will need to gain approximately 1.5-2.0 lbs. /day from weaning to breeding.

Heifers should be bred to proven calving-ease sires with superior Calving Ease Direct and Birth Weight Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs). If you are not willing to use artificial insemination, use sons of proven calving-ease sires. Keep the breeding season relatively short (60 days or less) to ease the demands of managing heifers through development and their first calving season. Retain the heifers that conceive early in the breeding season and sell those that conceive late or are open.

The decision to retain heifers can be a difficult choice and this year it is particularly challenging. Do you capitalize on the current strong feeder calf prices or speculate on the potential strong demand for bred females in the future? Do you know when you should "hold 'em or fold 'em?"

Source: John F. Grimes, OSU Extension Beef Coordinator