Developing replacement heifers and retaining a high percentage of those heifers as cows can be expensive. I’ve examined this subject before (Drovers, April 2006), but a review is in order because harvested and purchased feedstuffs cost much more today than 18 months ago. The total cost of developing a replacement female is not limited to the expense of getting her to that first calf; rather, how many of those females diagnosed with their first pregnancy are still with the herd four to five years later?

As I developed this month’s column, I recalled an incident during a workshop on ranch planning I was presenting. I was finishing a sample budget and asked the audience if we had forgotten any expenses for our example ranch. A young fellow, who had just graduated from an ag university, said we had forgotten the cost of corn. I was a little dumbfounded and said, “Corn. For what?” He responded that we needed corn for the replacement heifers. This started a very interesting and thought-provoking discussion about feeding replacement heifers.

Developing a heifer into a producing cow that will function every year in your environment and utilize 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 that 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 impact will high energy development have on her ability to lactate to her genetic potential?

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 heifers well (which was also expensive), but in subsequent years they had to make their 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.

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 a day from December until the end of March. The first of April they weighted about 530 pounds, with a body-condition score 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 preg 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. Second, and in my opinion more important, 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 on.

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, 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 program will only work if you are calving on or near green-up and selecting moderate-frame and -weight cattle.

Managing the productivity of the entire cow herd, including the selection of replacement heifers (without significant supplementation), will pay big benefits over time. This strategy requires thorough planning
of your cows’ biological clocks and that of the forages. With the high cost of commodities today, raising
efficient, profitable cows is a must, not an option.

To reach Pete Talbott, call 541-947-3482, or John Nalivka at 541-473-4170, Land and Livestock
Advisory Service,