While feeder-calf prices have shot up over the past couple of years, so have replacement-female prices. Auction barn market reports indicate that cow-calf-pair prices are topping levels over $1,000 per pair. Those high prices haven’t been achieved since the cattle cycle highs of the early 1990s.

With those peak prices, it’s left some producers wondering if selling replacement females, especially heifers, might be a good marketing opportunity.

For the past couple of years, Jim Link, stocker operator and director for Texas Christian University’s Ranch Management Program, has been doing just that. He’s been taking the top-quality heifers from the calves he purchases for his stocker program and selling them as replacements. “This is economics-driven,” he points out. “I operate on leased land, so I have to remain flexible. I buy calf crops from individuals and pull the top end of those calves and sort them by size and quality.” Then he sells them as open replacement heifers.

He sees opportunity in the female-replacement market for the next two to three years as the cattle cycle enters the expansion phase. You can take advantage of this by carefully considering and analyzing your situation and ability to raise and sell replacement females.

Open vs. bred
When you think of replacements, you may think you need to sell bred animals. That’s not necessarily the case.

For Mr. Link, he prefers selling younger heifers with a known farm of origin and health background. Since he runs on leased land, he needs to maintain flexibility and hold cattle for shorter periods of time. Therefore, keeping animals and breeding them is not something he has the time or resources to do.

“You have to decide at what age level you’re going to do this. Some people like to hold them, breed them, and then sell them as bred heifers. I personally don’t want to hold them that long; I’d rather turn over more numbers,” he says. Of course, he doesn’t get the top dollar that bred animals bring, but he still achieves a premium on the quality replacement heifers.

For producers who already run a cow-calf enterprise, raising and selling bred replacements may not require much more in the way of resources. The risk is that those animals that don’t breed and remain open then must be sold at cull-cow prices rather than feeder-heifer prices. The changes to B-maturity mean that open heifers may no longer meet the age requirement, points out Mr. Link.

Raised vs. purchased
If you’re thinking of selling replacements, you may believe that you can only do that if you run a cow-calf enterprise. That’s not necessarily the case.

Mr. Link is an example of being able to purchase quality, young heifers and pulling off the top end to sell as replacement heifers. In this scenario, he knows the herd of origin and health history. For instance, one group of heifers is from a rancher that has a 98 percent calf crop that is born within 80 days of each other. He’s fed the steers from the calf crop for the past eight years, knows how they perform and uses all that information as a marketing tool to sell the heifers.

Purchasing a calf crop, especially from unknown sources through the sale barn, can mean a greater risk and may limit your ability to sell them as potential replacements. In those instances, you may be better off raising your own replacement heifers from your cow herd, and then you know the history and breed background to obtain a premium replacement price.

With any replacement-female program, you have to keep out potential wrecks, such as a neighboring bull that wanders into your pasture of heifers. That requires investing in fencing to keep your animals in, but more importantly, your neighbor’s bull out.

In addition, if you don’t have adequate high-quality forage available, then you may need bunks to feed heifers to improve their plans of nutrition.

Glenn Selk, Oklahoma State University extension beef reproduction specialist, says that heifers need to maintain a body-condition score of 6 to meet the nutritional challenges of growing and reaching reproductive maturity. The general recommendation for replacement heifers is that they reach 65 percent of their mature weight by breeding. You also have to be careful to not overfeed or fatten replacement heifers.

Just what is the optimal growth for replacement heifers? Dr. Selk points to research from Kansas State University and Oklahoma State University on the timing of gain.

The KSU research noted that heifers that gained .55 pounds per day until the last two months prior to breeding and then were grown at 2.5 pounds per day were equal in reproductive performance to heifers grown at 1.31 pounds per day from November to May. The heifers that were “pushed” in the last two months actually were more efficient, consuming 12 percent less dry matter than the conventionally grown heifers.

The OSU research indicated that heifers wintered at .6 pounds per day then drylotted and gained 1.92 pounds per day reached puberty 20 to 30 days younger than their counterparts that were fed to gain at more uniform rates.

“This indicated that growing programs that allow heifers low to moderate rates of gain during most of the growing phase and then accelerate their growth leading into the breeding season may be very cost-effective and result in more heifers cycling early. This could be critical to the success of an AI and estrous-synchronization program,” Dr. Selk says.

In addition, winter-wheat pastures make an excellent growing forage source for replacement heifers. “Years of research and experience with stocker cattle wintered on small-grain pasture proves that this is a good choice for a heifer-growing ration,” Dr. Selk says. However, take care to avoid severe weight and condition loss if heifers are removed from wheat on March 15 and then placed on lower-quality pasture until the breeding season begins. “Setting aside a few acres of small grain pasture for ‘graze-out’ would allow the replacement heifers to graze high-quality pasture well into May,” he adds.

With concerns over animal diseases, producers purchasing replacement females need to keep a careful eye on a good disease-prevention strategy. This may mean that they require more information on the health of the cattle they bring into the herd.

When selling replacement females, you need to be willing and able to provide a health history on the animals. This includes the general vaccinations depending on your area  —   such as IBR, PI3, BVD, 7-way clostridial, Hemophilus, Leptospirosis/Vibriosis, as well as internal and external parasite control. You also need to provide information on other disease concerns. Dr. Selk says that more veterinarians are advising that producers ask about the incidents in Johne’s disease in the herd of origin before purchasing the animals. Another is persistent infection of BVD. PI in a herd can cause significant economic losses. And the only way to rid it from a herd is to cull infected animals and make sure that new animals brought in are tested for PI. For about $3 to $6 per head, you can have the replacement heifers you’re selling tested for PI through an ear-notch sample. That can then be used as a selling tool to boost the premium for your replacements.