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.