The outlook for several years of high calf prices signals expansion decisions for ranchers with adequate feed resources, and at the same time, they have an opportunity to boost the productivity of their cow herds and value of their calves.
Heifers and cows entering breeding herds today are perhaps more valuable than ever, but that value is based primarily upon the calves they will produce. So genetic decisions with regard to maternal traits, and in some cases carcass traits, become even more critical for cow-calf profitability. University of California-Davis Extension beef specialist Alison Van Eenennaam, PhD, says a variety of factors can influence which traits contribute to profitability in beef cows, but reproduction is the No. 1 profit driver. Reproductive traits of greatest economic value include age at first calving, reproductive success and replacement rate.
Research suggests most cow-calf producers should have a relative economic emphasis of 47 percent on reproduction, 24 percent on growth and 30 percent on carcass traits, she says. For producers who retain ownership through finishing and market into programs that reward carcass quality, the emphasis should shift to 40 percent on carcass, 29 percent on production traits and 31 percent on reproduction.
Pick the right females
Unfortunately, reproductive traits are sex-limited, lowly heritable, and some are expressed quite late in life. Lacking reliable genetic tools or measurements for predicting reproductive efficiency in beef females, producers rely primarily on pedigree and phenotype to select replacement heifers.
One sound strategy, she says, is to select heifers based on their date of birth, adequate weaning weight, and maturity to breed and calve as 2-year-olds. Heifers born early in the calving season, and thus conceived early in the breeding season, serve as indicators of fertile dams. Those born late in the season are more likely to come from dams that failed to conceive at first breeding, and those heifers might be too small and immature at breeding, so they are candidates for culling. So by retaining heifers born early, producers indirectly select for more fertile cows.
Charamie Viator, marketing manager for Silver Spur Ranches, agrees, saying Silver Spur increasingly selects for heifers conceived and born early in the season. Silver Spur is one of the nation’s largest ranching companies, with operations in Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico and Wyoming.
Viator stresses, however, that birth date is just one of many criteria she uses in retaining or purchasing females. “As producers begin to expand or repopulate herds, we have an opportunity to implement genetics that have greater profit potential. With higher input and feed costs it will be vital for us to identify genetics that can survive, breed and grow in a forage-based system,” she says. “In our lifetime, we will see a paradigm shift in our production system to where cattle spend more time on forage and less time on concentrate diets. This means these cattle will need to have a maturity pattern that is in synch with forage development.