Making improvement is the goal of most cattlemen. Producers have been very quick to measure things that were easy to evaluate such as weaning and yearling weights. Commercial cattlemen quickly began putting stock in these figures as a form of genetic improvement. From these early performance figures, breed associations have developed Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs) which have also been readily accepted by the commercial sector.
As the commercial cow/calf man began to make genetic improvement through the purchase of better bulls, questions surfaced about replacement heifers year after year. Many cattlemen were finding these females had already hit the cull pen before they had reached the prime production years.
“Without evaluation, most producers didn't realize these females had increased nutritional requirements based on the genetic improvement they had made by selecting better bulls,” says Dr. Dave Patterson, Extension Beef Specialist, University of Missouri. Patterson has been a driving force in setting guidelines for heifer development across the country and is in his 10th year working with the Show Me Select program.
There has been a big debate in the industry concerning whether it was better to buy or retain that percentage of females needed for replacements. This decision differs from firm to firm based on what fits. Either way this is an expensive proposition and some further education is needed to help producers stay on the right track.
“Heifer development is quite an expense. We have tried to show our producers the benefits of proper management through feed and health programs. A lot of our county extension agents are involved with the Heifer Evaluation and Reproduction Development Program (HERD). Through a cooperative effort, we have taken it to the producers,” says Johnny Rossi, Extension Beef Specialist and Tifton HERD coordinator.
“Most producers had too many heifers getting bred to calve mid to late in the first calving season. This set those heifers up for failure during their 2nd breeding season because most would cycle at the end of the breeding season or not at all,” Patterson says. “Many producers were being progressive and buying better genetics, just failing to keep pace from a nutritional standpoint. The basic guidelines established for heifer development in the Show Me Select program have been adopted across the state.”
When producers go buy the next herd bull, they expect to see immediate results in the next calf crop. Heifer development programs may suffer the same fate once producers see the differences when things they cannot evaluate visually are measured.
“When we started the program in Kentucky with the Bourbon County Livestock Improvement Association (BCLIA), producers weren't getting a lot of heifers bred to calve early in the season, were having a high rate of calving difficulty and not getting enough heifers bred back for their second calf,” Patterson says. “I thought pre-breeding evaluations would eventually tell us something. The exams told us something that very first year and producers could see it. In most cases, people who start the program don't realize how much room for improvement there is.”
“The county extension agents have done a good job getting their producers involved with the program either here at Tifton or our other location in Calhoun,” Rossi says. “Producers realize the longer they are involved with the HERD program, the more improvement they see in heifer quality and their dispositions get better.”
“The first year we were in the program it made an impression. We had two heifers the same frame size, they weighed the same and they were nice. One had a pelvic measurement of 175 square centimeters the other was barely 150. Just looking at them I could not tell any difference,” says Walter Major, Major Farms, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. Major has participated in 15 of the 16 BCLIA Elite Heifer Sales.
“Since we started with the HERD program six or seven years ago it sort of puts a gage on where our herd is and tells where we are. It evaluates the genetics we are using and lets us know where we need to improve,” says Bobby Lovett, Cuthbert, Georgia. Lovett has had heifers in the Tifton sale every year since it started.
Pre-breeding examinations should give producers a road map of how they need to handle the heifers from this process forward. Pelvic measurements, tract scores, weights, along with disposition scores are common for most programs, although each may present something unique.
“Heifers born in September and October are candidates for the Tifton HERD program. To be eligible heifers must have a WDA of 1.75 so we don't get something that is too small to breed. We also test for persistently infected BVD, we rarely have it, but we have to eliminate these animals from the program,” Rossi says. “The last week of November we'll tract score and pelvic measure the heifers. We'll breed heifers the week before Christmas and then turn them out with the cleanup bulls for 60 days.”
“Planning the pre-breeding exam at least two weeks before breeding season allows producers time to make some adjustments. At pre-breeding, if 50 to 60 percent of the heifers have a tract score 4 and 5 they're ready to synchronize. If that percentage drops to 30 to 40 percent, the producer has the opportunity to adjust his nutrition program,” Patterson says. “Reproductive traits have fairly low heritability, except for maturity. If heifers aren't fed properly, it can mask the genetics.”
“When we started taking pelvic measurements, tract scores, weighing cattle and taking frame scores, we found out how important proper nutrition was to our program,” Major says. “We started developing our heifers a little differently. We changed rations and began feeding them high fiber (silage) ration. Nutrition is the key to heifer development. Those heifers that don't look good in the spring, after they calve, usually have trouble breeding back.”
The measurements, just like the seedstock producer uses a gain on test as on of the criteria for bulls that make the sale, often are used to make on-farm keep/cull decisions. Qualification, for the Georgia HERD sale or the BCLIA Elite heifer sale, is based on adequately fulfilling the designated requirements and passing the test.
“When we take all the measurements, I can pretty much sort my replacements on paper. I still go look at them, but I do a lot of sorting based on the data we have collected. It seems we are seeing more consistent tract scores and our disposition has improved a lot over the years,” Major says. “I can't afford to keep the heifers with a small pelvic area or low tract score. Eliminating these heifers saves me a lot of time and considerable expense. They aren't worth fooling with, when you have good heifers that meet all the standards.”
“Usually around 10 percent of the heifers don't make the sale because they fail to meet the pelvic requirement. A lot of our producers will leave them here to be developed and then take them home,” Rossi says. “We have a tract score requirement of 2 and take disposition scores three different times on these heifers. Poor disposition scores do not take heifers out of the program, but we make sure they are published for all potential buyers.”
“Most breeders took the approach to select the biggest, stoutest heifers for replacements. Once measurements are taken, producers figure out everything works together,” Patterson says. “By taking pelvic measurements, we can remove the abnormally small or abnormally structured pelvis.”
Adding value obviously is the main goal of programs with a designated sale. Most value-added opportunities, due to numbers and resources, are only available to larger producers, but taking the time to properly manage future replacements is not size dependent. For some producers removing the less desirable animals within a certain window also adds value to the product. Performing pre-breeding exams within the suggested window should add dollars to the bottom line.
“We have tried to structure the program based on a timeline that gives the producer the opportunity to market bred heifers and heifers that fall out of the program. Given their age, most heifers that fall out during the pre-breeding exam can go right to the feedyard,” Patterson says. “The program is not size dependent. We have a lot of small producers taking advantage of the program because it is a way for them to get more money for what they produce. If we can get cattlemen to improve their genetics and do a good job marketing, their financial position will improve significantly.”
“Some of our producers have some really good heifers, but can't utilize all of them in their program. It gives them a way to add value to maybe that second cut of heifers. We have a lot of small producers who just don't have room to develop their heifers send them through our program and take them back home to improve the herd,” Rossi says. “Two thirds of our producers probably sell heifers after the program and we get 20 percent new consignors each year. We have several consignors every year who use our test to advertise and develop their own program to sell heifers.”
“The first HERD sale we selected the top 10 percent of our replacements. The next year, we took a different class of cattle and didn't see much difference in the way they performed,” Lovett says. “People who go to the HERD auction are always interested in our heifers and we have been able to tap into some markets we didn't have because of the program. We keep in touch with most of our buyers and most have been happy with our heifers.”
“When I eliminate that heifer in the spring for what ever reason, she still has a lot of value as a feeder heifer,” Major says. “I see the value that has been added to the herd through better dispositions, increased fertility and keeping our mature size in check.”
Most of these programs present distinct guidelines of the EPDs and accuracy level a bull must meet before he is eligible to be a sire in the program. In some cases, the program will designate an AI sire or group of AI sires to be used. That sire or sire group will be the service sire for most of the heifers in the program. Highly proven calving ease sires are usually a no-brainer when it comes to making this decision.
“Calving ease is huge. We have to have it. The cows that experience calving problems take longer to rebreed, therefore resulting in a higher instance of falling out of the breeding herd,” Patterson says. “If you're going to take the time and make the effort to AI you should use a highly proven sire.”
“We select a high accuracy calving ease bull to use on the heifers that are in the program. We'll synchronize heifers, heat check and time breed anything that hasn't come in heat 72 hours later,” Rossi says. “A lot of times breeders who bring heifers for us to develop, that they want to take home, will supply their own semen.”
Heifer development programs that rely on pre-breeding exams to eliminate future problems and employ progressive tactics such as AI have enlightened producers to management schemes that could be profitable on their own farms. Further evaluation of that genetic package known as the replacement heifer brings definite benefits down the line. Just like most university programs, the success depends on how well producers receive them. With the Elite Heifer program in Kentucky headed into it's 17th sale, the Show Me Select program responsible for marketing over 18,000 head and the HERD program hitting full stride in it's seventh year, it seems the industry is noticing the usefulness of these programs.
“We have seen so many positives through the HERD program that we may not know how to read them all. You can tell by the fact we've stayed involved the program that we think it has helped,” Lovett says. “Since we have started the HERD program we have improved our herd in a lot of areas, the main one is fertility.”
“A pelvic measurement is no panacea when it comes to calving problems. I will eliminate some of the problems, but let's face it, she's still a heifer and you will have some problems for various reasons. We have learned we can increase pelvic size without increasing frame size. I have also learned that good looking heifer won't always have a good pelvic measurement or tract score,” Major says. “By going through the process year after year we have seen improvement in fertility. The heifers breed in a timely manner and cows rebreed in a timely manner. I have a lot of calves born the first 45 days of my calving season.”
“A very small percentage of commercial producers use AI and this program gives them some exposure to it. When producers have success they realize this is something they can do at home,” Rossi says. “Producers have had a lot of success taking heifers home and calving them out because they know we've developed them right.”
“Herds that continually stay with the program have a better understanding of reproductive management. We have a lot of producers that are embracing synchronization and AI programs as a result. There is a cumulative affect once these heifers start to enter the herd, producers see drastic changes,” Patterson says. “It is one of those things that just sort of builds on itself and it's a three to four year process before things start happening. Until we work with a herd individually, it is hard to show them the differences.”