When the USDA releases its widely anticipated cattle inventory report later this month, we are likely to see another reduction in total beef cow numbers but an uptick in the number of heifers retained for breeding. And industry consensus suggests, weather permitting, that trend will accelerate over the next few years in response to high cattle values and lower feed costs. Yes, it appears that after more than a decade of shrinking herds, the U.S. beef cattle industry is poised to expand.

In December, CattleFax CEO Randy Blach said CattleFax expects heifer retention to post a year-over-year increase of about 140,000 head during 2014. The total beef cow inventory will decline by about 1 percent during 2014, but by 2015 it will show a 1 percent increase as more heifers come into production.

Producers with the opportunity to add more heifers back into their breeding herds also have opportunities to build in long-term improvements in production efficiency and profits through genetic selection and management practices that enhance life-long productivity in replacement heifers. If you plan to begin retaining or purchasing more heifers, and your resources allow it, there are multiple considerations to help ensure herd expansion will pay off .

While a good and consistent plane of nutrition is important for the developing heifer, excessively rapid growth can be costly and unnecessary. Research from University of Nebraska animal scientist Rick Funston, PhD, and others has demonstrated that heifers do not need to grow to the traditional target of 65 percent of mature weight by first breeding for good fertility. First-calf heifers can achieve acceptable conception rates at 55 percent of mature weight, provided they are gaining weight and condition at breeding. This concept allows lower-cost, forage-based inputs including winter crop residues or dormant grass. Access to green grass in the spring helps heifers gain condition prior to breeding.

In Funston’s trials comparing heifers developed in two systems, one group spent 193 days in a drylot while another spent 135 days grazing corn stalks through the winter, followed by a 59-day drylot period prior to breeding. The cornstalk heifers weighed an average of 110 pounds less than drylot heifers at breeding but outgained them during pre-breeding backgrounding and on grass through the period between breeding and calving. Final pregnancy rates were 89 percent for cornstalk heifers versus 92 percent for drylot heifers. By calving time, the cornstalk heifers averaged just 38 pounds lighter than the drylot heifers, and the cornstalk heifers saved $70 per head or more in development costs.

Even in years when drylot heifers had better conception rates than the low-input heifers, lower costs helped compensate for the difference.

In related work, researchers at the USDA Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) in Clay Center, Neb., conducted a three-year study, growing heifers to either 55 or 65 percent of expected mature weight by feeding them for 1 or 1.75 pounds of average daily gain from 8 to 15 months of age. The researchers exposed the heifers to bulls for 47 days and monitored pregnancy rates along with other physiologic measurements. They found no significant differences between groups regarding ovarian development or the number of follicles. Both treatments resulted in similar overall pregnancy rates, but 30 percent more of the heavier heifers conceived within the first 21 days of the breeding period.

Earlier conception and earlier calving provide value from heavier calves at weaning and improved odds for early rebreeding in subsequent years, so there are economic tradeoff s in low-cost heifer development. A large MARC collaborative project collected data on nearly 19,000 heifers and found that when heifers had their first calf within the first 21 days of the calving season they stayed in the herd significantly longer than those calving later, and they had heavier weaning weights for their first six calves.

Developing heifers to lighter weights can provide economic benefits though. One way around the conception-date tradeoff is to breed more heifers than you need, using a short breeding season, and sell open heifers as stocker or feeder cattle.

Trey Patterson, PhD, serves as chief operating officer of the Padlock Ranch in Wyoming. He stresses the importance of knowing and controlling the cost of getting a replacement female into the breeding herd.

The team at the Padlock Ranch has tested low-cost systems for developing heifers on native range, with some supplementation, and compared those systems with developing heifers in confinement. The ranch breeds heifers later in the summer, allowing cattle wintered on native range to increase their plane of nutrition and regain body condition prior to breeding. In one year, with a harsh winter and dry summer, first-service conception rate to AI was about 10 percentage units lower for the range-developed heifers versus the feedlot-developed heifers. The range heifers were about 100 pounds lighter at breeding compared with the feedlot heifers. There was no difference in overall pregnancy rate, and the cost per bred heifer was lower for the range-developed heifers. In other years the team has seen no difference in first-service conception rate.

If pregnancy rates are lower in heifers developed in the low-cost system, the value of open heifers becomes a key to making the system work economically. University of Nebraska economist Dick Clark analyzed the economic risk of low-cost systems, using 11 years of data on feed costs and cattle prices, and a model assuming a 50 percent pregnancy rate (much lower than  research actually found). He learnedthat if development costs were low — low enough to allow profitable sale of open heifers as feeder cattle — those sales more than offset the lower pregnancy rate.

For many producers, purchasing replacement heifers can provide convenience, genetic improvement and, possibly, reduced costs compared with raising them. Bringing new animals into a herd entails some health risks, though, and Mac Devin, DVM, a professional services veterinarian with Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica, Inc., offers these suggestions for minimizing that risk.

• Whenever possible, purchase heifers with a known history of their herd of origin, vaccination status and genetic background.

• Quarantine new animals for at least 30 days and observe daily to detect expression of clinical disease.

• Working with your herd veterinarian, establish a vaccination protocol for incoming animals to protect against potential disease outbreaks.

• Consider asking your veterinarian to perform reproductive tract scoring and pelvic scoring of every new heifer to minimize breeding failure and/or calving difficulty.

Devin advises that such receiving vaccination programs should include, along with IBR, BVD, BRSV and PI-3, coverage of diseases specific to the local environment, such as leptospirosis and red water disease.

Sidebar: All heifers, all the time

Convergence of reproductive technologies could allow a radical shift in the beef-production system — virtual elimination of the cow herd. In conventional systems, producers essentially “store” cows over the winter every year, at considerable expense, says George Seidel, PhD, a rancher and reproductive physiologist at Colorado State University (CSU).

In an alternative system, producers could use ovsynch along with sexed semen to produce a herd of first-calf heifers. After early weaning, the dams go to the feedyard for finishing as long yearlings, and their heifer calves are raised as replacements. The heifers go to slaughter at about 30 months of age.

Everything on the ranch is growing in this system, Seidel says. All the females are gaining weight and gaining value until sale time, unlike cows that depreciate over time. The availability of proven calving-ease sires minimizes problems with calving heifers. Also, Seidel adds, heifers are typically the easiest females to get bred. The system avoids the “sophomore slump” that often affects females nursing their first calves. There is no castration and no old, lame cows to manage on the ranch.

Seidel, who often conducts CSU research trials in his own herd, currently is testing this system with a group of 54 heifers on his ranch, Rabbit Creek Angus.

The system will require adding back some females to maintain a stable breeding herd. Some heifers will fail to produce a calf; heifers bred to cleanup bulls would produce some male calves, as would the AI heifers, as sexed semen currently has an accuracy rate around 90 percent. Seidel, who has been closely involved in development of sexed-semen technology, expects that accuracy rate and the fertility rate of sexed semen to improve over time.

Overall, Seidel expects a producer would need to add back one-quarter to one-third of the heifer herd each year. Potentially, he says, they could purchase young, high-quality stocker heifers as replacements.

Any downsides to the system should be overcome by gains in production efficiency. Seidel estimates the system could produce 30 percent more beef with the same feed requirements and lower water use compared with conventional cow-calf production.