Why do the heifers get to decide who breeds the cows?

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Late April is a busy and exciting time of year for the typical cow-calf producer in Ohio. Winter has given way to spring as temperatures slowly rise and grass begins to green up and grow. The 2013 calf crop has hit the ground and we see the early returns on breeding and management decisions from the previous year. Will these results have a direct bearing on the upcoming breeding season?

The 2007 National Animal Health Monitoring System's (NAHMS) Beef Survey indicated that the typical beef cow herd in Ohio averaged 17 cows in size. This number would indicate the typical beef operation is a part of a larger farming operation or an enterprise managed by someone that obtains their primary source of income away from the farm. In either situation, the cow-calf operation must "peacefully" coexist with the primary farming operation or other employment.

As I visit with commercial cow-calf producers in the region in my roles as an Extension Educator and a seedstock producer, I have come to realize that these individuals have some unique circumstances upon which they base many of their management decisions. Regardless of the situation, a common theme that I hear from producers is that they want to simplify their cattle operation. They have enough demands on their time that they can't afford to have cattle complicate their daily routine. I can certainly respect that desire.

The producer's desire to simplify things is often manifested in the manner they go about selecting a bull for their herd. Regardless of the breeds involved, the most important trait that I hear expressed by the average bull buyer is calving ease. I can't disagree with that opinion because a cow needs to deliver a live calf every year if she hopes to have a chance at profitability.

However, I do have an issue with how many producers let their replacement heifers dictate the amount of emphasis that is placed on calving ease across the entire herd. The same 2007 NAHMS study that I mentioned earlier in this article also indicated that 16 - 18% of the national cow herd is replaced annually by heifers. This data would indicate that the typical Ohio beef herd adds three replacement heifers annually. It is my opinion that the producer with a typical herd size allows a small number of heifers to dictate the genetic package of the bull selected for the entire herd.

I believe the average producer sacrifices too much quality with traits of importance such as weaning weight, yearling weight, and carcass traits for matings with the mature cows just to insure calving ease on the yearling heifers retained. It just doesn't make sense to let three heifers dictate the matings on 14 cows in the average Ohio herd. Producers seem all too willing to give up growth and carcass merit, traits with significant economic rewards, on calves from mature females that can handle a bit more birth weight.

Please don't misunderstand the message here. I do not believe we should invite calving difficulties on any females in the herd. Certainly we need to get the first-calf-heifer off to a productive start by minimizing calving difficulties. However, losing valuable pounds of weaning and yearling weight on calves from mature cows does not make sense (or cents)! Yes, there are unique bulls within every breed that excel in calving ease, growth, and end-point merit. These bulls can be expensive to own and can be difficult to justify purchasing by the small herd owner.

What are some viable genetic options for the small herd producer? Consider these scenarios.

Option #1: Breed all replacement heifers through artificial insemination (A.I.) and use a herd sire that matches the needs of the mature cows. There are plenty of proven calving ease sires available through major A.I. studs that are suitable for heifers. Many producers will resist this option because of the perceived time and cost associated with A.I. There are several heat synchronization protocols that can provide acceptable conception rates with a minimal amount of time involved from the producer. Maintain a relatively short breeding season (60-90 days) and cull any open heifers after the breeding season. There are certainly costs associated with A.I. but many producers tend to underestimate the breeding costs associated with the herd bull. Depending on the size of the herd, the cost of A.I. may not be much different than the cost per cow of a herd bull.

Option #2: Don't keep replacement females from your herd and purchase bred heifers or young bred cows for herd additions. This option can be very appealing to the producer who wants to avoid the management difficulties associated with developing a heifer from weaning until late gestation. It can also allow the producer to make more rapid improvement in the genetic composition or uniformity of the cow herd when compared to adding replacements from within the herd.

Options #1 and #2 can allow the producer to keep a high quality bull for a longer period of time if he is not faced with the concern of the herd bull breeding his own daughters. If the producer is using the herd bull to only service mature cows, a greater number of potential herd sires are available for purchase if calving ease for heifers is not a selection criteria. Either option can help facilitate a structured crossbreeding program. Regardless if the genetic makeup of your current herd is purebred or crossbred, it would be relatively simple to implement a breeding program to take advantage of the economic advantages of heterosis.

Would a NASCAR team put "economy" fuel in a race car if higher octane fuel will provide the extra speed for a win? Would a grain farmer sacrifice yield by planting varieties with high disease resistance and lower yield potential if the threat of disease is low? Would my beloved Cincinnati Bengals draft a kicker if their greatest needs were a safety or running back? Why do the heifers get to decide who breeds the cows in the typical Ohio herd?

Source: John F. Grimes, OSU Extension Beef Coordinator

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W. Nebraska  |  April, 25, 2013 at 02:05 PM

First off you probably don't run any cows or just a few hobby cows. AI does not get every heifer bred and you still need bull power. AI can be labor intensive and expensive for just a few cows. The per cwt dollar slide from a smaller calf to a big calf has been wide enough to make a small calf dollar out close to the bigger calf and sometimes the small calf outsells the large one. A lot of times in the past few years a there might be 100 lbs difference in calves and no difference in price. A big one eats more. I could go all day shooting holes in your theory. Now if you were to finish all your own calves then your story holds water.

Tx  |  April, 25, 2013 at 02:58 PM

Let one or two of those heifers die calving or lose the calf or two due to high birth weight and all of the profits from those larger sized calves disappear quickly. I have the same herd size as mentioned in the article. AI eats too much of my profits. I have a low birth weight bull for the heifers and a high birth weight bull for the mature cows. I find it is better to have two bulls than one anyway because things can happen to a bull at times and having a ready to go backup avoids the losses from unbred cows. Also, if you don't have someone to watch the herd daily during calving season, it's better to go with a low birth weight bull. Bottom line: 100% calves on the ground and weaned beats higher weaning weight in my book any day. Also, the smaller cattle finish out quicker when the price of feed is high and the days of consumers wanting a steak that fills the entire plate or about over.

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