Should you spay heifers?

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It’s a cost of doing business for Mark Pandorf of Pandorf Land and Cattle in Callaway, Neb. At his family’s ranch, approximately 1,000 head of heifers are spayed each year prior to turn out on summer grass. Spaying heifers helps keep the neighbors with bulls nearby happy. And he doesn’t have to deal with the cost of pregnant heifers at the end of grazing season or preg checking heifers before going into the feedyard.

The same is true at Waitley Cattle Company, which sends almost 15,000 head of animals to grass in a year across pastures in Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas. Owner Frank Waitley, who is headquartered near Iliff, Colo., says that in years when they haven’t spayed the heifers going out to grass, inevitably a good percentage come back pregnant. That is an expensive gamble considering the cost of dealing with those unwanted pregnancies. So when he does turn out heifers, he prefers to spay them.

In the North Central Plains and some Western states, heifer spaying is a common management tool. It’s less common in the southern region of the United States. The reasons for spaying vary, but include:

  • Preventing pregnancy in pastured heifers.
  • Eliminating the cost of pregnant heifers in the feedyard.
  • Improving grazing and feedlot performance with the use of implants.
  • Reducing riding by eliminating estrous.
  • Eliminating the need for estrous suppressing feed additives.

Just like any management tool, spaying heifers carries a price tag—which is probably the biggest hindrance to widespread practice. Daryl Meyer, a veterinarian in Fremont, Neb., who specializes in heifer spaying, says the average cost is between $4.50 and $6 per head depending on the veterinarian and the number of head spayed. But for those who turn out cattle, they see the cost as worth it. 

Dr. Meyer points out  when you spay, you eliminate some costs that go along with grazing and feeding heifers. One is the cost of preg checking, at about $1.50 to $2 per head, to guarantee open heifers going on feed. Another is that you don’t have to feed estrous suppressing feed additives, which can cost $2 to $3 per head. In addition, some research shows improved rates of gain on grass and in the feedlot of spayed, implanted heifers versus non-spayed, implanted heifers.

Importance of implants
“When you spay heifers, you’re removing the ovaries so you’re removing the source of progesterone, and you’re removing some of the source of estrogen. Although there are other places in the body that produce estrogen. But that’s why keeping the spayed heifers implanted is important,” says Dr. Meyer. Several research trials point to the importance of implanting spayed heifers. Research at the Great Plains Veterinary Center in Clay Center, Neb., found that in nine trials involving exogenous growth promotants, the weight gains of vaginally spayed heifers averaged 3.06 percent more than those of nonspayed controls. Other trials showed that nonspayed heifers outperformed non-implanted spayed heifers whether grazing or on feed. The conclusion being when you remove a source of hormones from the animals, it must be replaced in order to boost performance.

The type of implant to use depends on your marketing and genetics. Dr. Meyer points out the genetic type of heifer and how you plan to sell the animal, such as on a grid or live basis, will determine which implant regimen to follow.

“There’s research that shows that spayed heifers will lay down fat sooner than intact heifers, so if they are the right type of heifers and are implanted correctly, then you could pick up an increase in quality grade. But if you’re selling live and wanting to get as many pounds as possible, you might want to go with a more aggressive implant program,” he says.

Finding a veterinarian
Research looking at the various vaginal spaying techniques found that no one method is better than the other, but rather the skill of the veterinarian that does the spaying plays more of a factor in the success than the method used. Death losses from heifer spaying can be minimal, but again that depends on the expertise of the veterinarian.

Your regular veterinarian may not be skilled with heifer spaying, and you may need to seek out someone more specialized. “You need to choose a vet with experience in heifer spaying,” says Dr. Meyer. “The success rate and low death loss depends on the experience of the person performing the spaying.”

With good facilities and a good crew, an experienced veterinarian can spay 450 to 550 or more heifers a day. Dr. Meyer has perfected his technique and now travels the country spaying heifers in the early spring before the animals move to pastures. He says his average is about 500 head a day, but he can do more than that with good facilities.

He recommends asking other producers you know who spay heifers for recommendations. Then find out from the veterinarian:

  • What is his or her death loss rate?
  • How many head can be done in a day?
  • What is the cost?
  • What follow up is required?

When not to spay
If you participate in one of the “natural” alliance or grid programs where you can’t give implants or antibiotics, heifer spaying should not be done. “That is a place where spaying wouldn’t be good since spayed heifers really need the implants for performance. In that case, they can feed something like MGA instead,” advises Dr. Meyer.

Also, don’t expect a premium if you’re selling live animals to a feedyard or at auction. Feedyards are on the lookout for spayed heifers, but they won’t necessarily pay a premium. It really depends on the market. If you’re selling to the packer and they know the animal is guaranteed open, they may pay the same for the heifers as for steers.

But for those who turn out large numbers of heifersand retain ownership, the cost of spaying is worth it. Spayed heifers can be turned out without the worry of unwanted pregnancies and there may be some improved rates of gain while on grass and in the feedyard if the animals are implanted.

For more information on heifer spaying, contact Dr. Meyer at (800) 494-1045 or e-mail: darylmeyer@qwest.net



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