Developing a heifer into a producing cow that functions well in your environment and utilizes the forage your ranch produces is not an easy task. The development of heifers can take several directions. For me, the most profitable method is to select those individuals that can perform under the resources their environment provides, even if it may seem somewhat ruthless.
How long will a highly developed heifer last in the herd? How well will this highly developed heifer breed back with her second calf without significant extra feed inputs? What impacts will high-energy development have on her ability to lactate to her genetic potential? A calculation we don’t often reflect on is the loss derived after selling an open 2- or 3-year-old from the initial development and carrying cost of that 2- or 3-year-old.
While managing a cow-calf operation in the Great Basin (big open range), I discovered that I could get the heifers bred up very well on their first breeding, but subsequent breeding for their second and third calves was not as successful. The fall out at preg-check time was much greater than I wanted or could afford.
As I reviewed our options, I realized that we were feeding the young open heifer well (which was also expensive), but in subsequent years she had to make her living on our range conditions and some of the heifers were not holding up well. So, I decided that the heifers needed to grow and develop in the environment the ranch provides. Those individuals that couldn’t perform needed to fall out earlier not later. It is a lot more profitable to sell a yearling open heifer than a thin 2- or 3-year-old open (yes there are other marketing options).
The first year was a little tough, mentally. We grazed the heifers all winter with supplemental protein to meet their needs. They gained about 0.3 pound per day from December until the end of March. The first of April they weighed about 530 pounds, and body-condition scores were in the mid-4s when they were turned out on started green grass. So, over the winter they put on frame and lost overall condition.
As the grass increased in strength and volume, they gained in leaps and bounds. The bulls were turned out in mid-May. In a 60-day breeding season, we consistently had pregnancy rates in the high 80s and low 90s. The preg rates were nearly the same as when we fed for higher winter gains. But we easily dropped our development costs by $125. Secondly, and in my mind more importantly, was that we developed a heifer that could handle herself under the conditions we were going to ask her to spend the rest of her life producing calves in.
In addition to winter cost savings, the heifers still weighed nearly the same at preg-check time (their summer gains were great) as their more highly developed sisters did in previous years. The preg rates of our second and third calf heifers increased significantly.
The bottom line is how you ask the question. In other words, many of us look at how we can increase the breed up of the last 5 to 10 percent by adding more inputs. Instead, I think we should be complimenting the majority of individuals that do breed under our conditions and let the ones that don’t breed under our conditions fall out. By taking that philosophy, you will end up with a much more profitable and stable cow outfit in the end. So, I think the question should be why did 85 to 90 percent breed up so well? Not how do we get the last 10 to 15 percent to breed? Remember, this type of program will only work if you are calving on or near green up and selecting moderate- to small-frame cattle.
Managing the productivity of the entire cow herd, including the selection of the replacement heifers (without significant supplementation), will pay big benefits over time. This strategy requires thorough planning of your cow’s biological clock and that of the forages.
For more thoughts, please give me a call.