Heifer management has, perhaps, never been more critical. Consider the heifers you selected as replacements this year in the context of the new cattle market. Assuming a sound breeding and selection program, they should carry the best genetics in your herd. The calves they deliver over the next few years will, most likely, bring higher prices than ever before, based on genetic merit and because supplies of feeder cattle will fall short of demand.

In addition to the high value of their calves, high input prices mean you have invested heavily in this year’s crop of replacement heifers, making it even more critical they pay their way by breeding back and remaining in the herd for years to come.

Producers with spring-calving herds currently are managing two groups of heifers — newly weaned heifers from their 2011 calf crop and yearling heifers preparing to deliver their first calves. Heifers in both groups are at critical stages in their development, and careful management can help ensure their long-term productivity.

Weaned heifer calves

For these young heifers, the goal is to bring them into condition for their first breeding, resulting not only in pregnancy but pregnancy early in the breeding season.

University of Missouri Extension beef specialist Dave Patterson, PhD, advises producers to focus on nutrition and health protocols for developing heifers during the months leading up to breeding.

These young heifers are still growing rapidly and need to meet nutritional requirements for maintenance, growth and reproduction to conceive during the breeding season. They should be gaining weight during the months leading up to breeding, but the best target weight can depend on breed or biological type. Traditional guidelines have suggested heifers should reach 60 to 65 percent of their mature bodyweight by breeding. More recently, research at the University of Nebraska and elsewhere has shown producers can reduce heifer-development costs by using forage-based systems targeting breeding weights of 51 to 57 percent of mature weight. Patterson says these systems work, but some later-maturing cattle might need that extra weight at breeding to reach puberty and conceive early in the season.

Delayed conception in first-calf heifers sets them up for later and later breeding in subsequent years, a situation that eventually can lead to open females and early culling. Research consistently shows, he says, that heifers bred early in the breeding season remain in the herd longer, produce more calves, wean heavier calves and generate higher returns compared with heifers that conceive later.

Patterson coordinates Missouri’s “Show Me Select” replacement heifer program, which helps producers add value to heifers through documented management and genetics, and links buyers with sellers through special heifer sales.

The basic requirements for Show Me Select heifers can serve as guidelines for a sound heifer development program, whether you plan to sell bred heifers or keep them in your breeding herd. Those requirements include specified vaccinations at weaning and at pre- and post-breeding, parasite control, a pre-breeding reproductive evaluation, including pelvic area and reproductive tract scores, and a pregnancy examination within 90 days of breeding. Full specifications are available online at agebb.missouri.edu/select/.

At the next value tier in the program, producers can document that heifers were sired by bulls with proven, high-accuracy EPDs for calving ease and other important economic traits.

Data from Show Me Select sales in the fall of 2010 and spring and fall of 2011 illustrate the value buyers place on these verifications. Heifers qualifying for the basic Tier-1 level, bred by natural service, averaged $1,492 per head. Tier-2 heifers bred to proven AI sires averaged $1,751, topping the baseline by $259 per head. In the most recent sale, held on Dec. 10 in northeastern Missouri, 255 Show Me Select heifers sold for an average price of $2,012 per head.

Consider AI

Those prices reflect the value of genetic progress from breeding heifers to selected AI sires, and Patterson stresses additional reasons producers should consider AI for first-calf heifers.

First, by using one of today’s simplified estrus-synchronization programs and timed AI, producers can shift more heifers into the early calving group, gaining the benefits already discussed.

Bull prices also enter the equation. With many bulls selling for $5,000 or more this fall, the cost of using proven AI sires with accurate EPDs for calving ease and other traits looks more affordable than ever. Patterson offers an analysis based on an average bull price of $3,740, with an assumption, based on research data, the bull will produce an average of 45 progeny over its lifetime. Assuming $25 per dose for semen from a high-accuracy bull, plus $20 per head for estrus synchronization, a producer could inseminate 83 heifers for the price of the one bull. With a 55 percent conception rate, that AI program would result in 46 pregnant heifers.

Pregnant heifers

For your bred heifers preparing to deliver their first calves this spring, management over the next few months will help determine their long-term productivity.

Failure to rebreed after birth of the first calf is one of the primary reasons for culling in beef cattle operations in the western United States, says University of Nebraska animal scientist Rick Funston, PhD. Producers have significant money invested in a female by the time of her second breeding, he adds, and high replacement rates can greatly decrease the profitability of a beef cattle operation.

Toward the goal of a short postpartum interval and early conception, feeding heifers a balanced ration including adequate energy and protein during the last trimester of pregnancy and through the breeding season is of critical importance, Funston says. When nutrition falls short during this period, heifers tend to experience more calving difficulty, breed back later in the season, have higher sickness and death rates and wean lighter calves.

The most practical measure of a heifer’s nutritional status as it affects reproduction is her body-condition score at the time of calving, which influences when she cycles after calving and is correlated with services per conception, calving interval, milk production, weaning weight, calving difficulty and calf survival. Heifers should have a BCS of 5 or 6 at calving through breeding. Now is the time to step up your nutritional program for any thin heifers to improve body condition prior to calving and the additional energy demands of lactation.

But, Funston warns, you can provide too much of a good thing. Excess feed and supplements are costly, and a BCS of 7 or higher can negatively influence reproductive performance.

So, consider offering your heifers a little extra TLC this winter. Based on the market outlook, they’ll pay you back with interest over the coming years.