Management protocols often follow mission statements or reflect something stated in an end-of-the-year financial statement or lost market share to competitors. This business world jargon may sound like a foreign language to some ranchers; however, most realize, to succeed, these terms need to become part of their production model.
Developing heifers is a topic often discussed at field days, producer meetings and through other means of continuing education. Like most things with the cattle business, change comes slow because these critters have been finding their way into the breeding herd for a long time. Every outfit takes a different approach and conflicting points of view often stir emotions.
In an era where the current political regime has decided it was more important to become less dependent on foreign oil than to feed the masses, this process will become an even more delicate adventure. Costs are spiraling upward for feed, fuel and acreage, which make this commodity even more valuable to the rancher once she enters productive life.
“The majority of cattlemen do not pre-program their heifers for entry into the breeding herd. As a result, many do not reach their full genetic potential. We can maximize lifetime productivity of females if they are developed right,” says Dr. Gary Williams, Texas AgriLife Research-Beeville.
Getting heifers off to a good start will be extremely important. Fine-tuning health programs and getting them started with solid nutrition will put producers on the right track
“I like to creep feed calves at least two weeks prior to weaning. The heifers know how to eat and they come through an extremely stressful period in a lot better shape,” says Robbie Hamilton, H & M Cattle Co., Wharton, Texas. H & M develops F1 females that are marketed as either breds or pairs.
“Heifers must be placed on an appropriate nutritional program after weaning so as to assure that they have adequate opportunity to reach sexual maturity within a specified time period, usually between 12 and 15 months of age, depending upon breed type,” Williams says. “At our location, a sound immunization program, including a booster to their early-calfhood blackleg vaccination, a broad spectrum respiratory virus vaccine (IBR/PI3/BVD and BRSV) and lepto/vibrio is administered 2 to 3 weeks before weaning or at purchase. Heifers then receive boosters at weaning with the respiratory vaccine, lepto and vibrio. Heifers are dewormed at this time and dewormed again 30 days later, because I want them to have the best opportunity to utilize the feed and forages.”
“We buy load lots of top northern cattle that have been given at least one round of shots. We get them home, boost them and have had very little trouble from a health standpoint,” says Bart Brorsen, Perry, Oklahoma. The Brorsen operation purchases heifers from reputation outfits and markets them the next fall as bred heifers.
Obviously, the selection process will differ from ranch to ranch, but if there are resources available, culling at weaning time may not be the best decision. Marketing cattle at higher weights could be a profitable venture for cattlemen who have the ability to grow them a little longer.
“Producers need to remove the bottom end and always select for the type of cattle they want as mature cows. There may be an issue for some with those big, growthy heifers, if the operation is concerned with mature cow size,” Williams says. “You don't necessarily have to make these culling decisions at weaning. If you can, grow them out a little and observe them for a longer period of time. Select what you need and then sell the ones that don't fit.”
Once heifers are selected from their herd mates to be replacements is when the real work begins. For some cattlemen, it is a struggle to keep expenses down and provide proper nutrition. Available forage resources will determine the correct supplementation level.
“Another reason I like to creep feed these cattle, is because when I pull them off the cow they are in a little better shape. If you can keep the heifers in the proper condition, they are not that hard or expensive to maintain and they'll reach the right weight for breeding,” Hamilton says. “Make the feeding program match the available forages. I try to keep them growing, without getting the feed bill too high.”
“Every day is critical for that heifer. She has to gain well and not get too fat. We have access to wheat pasture and we'll run those heifers on wheat through the winter,” Brorsen says. “Being on something green really helps these heifers get growing. I think they're ahead of the curve when we pull them off wheat March 1st. We'll feed them hay and supplement to keep them gaining at an acceptable rate until we go to grass. We can usually maintain them on grass through the summer if we get enough moisture.”
“People develop heifers many different ways. However, the strategy has to result in the attainment of puberty at the proper time. This means they will have to have achieved an adequate weight for their breed type and have normal reproductive tract development,” Williams says. “Pubertal weight varies with breed type. For example, in the Gulf Coast region, most cattle have some Bos
indicus influence and will be later maturing compared to straight English bred heifers. The typical F1 Braford will reach puberty at 725 to 750 pounds. If they gain about one and a half pounds per day from weaning until targeted breeding, the majority will be pubertal at the desired time.”
Heifers have to be gaining the proper amount to reach the target weight. Keeping heifers on track without coming in above or below the magic number will give these animals the best chance.
“I don't think it's good for cows or heifers to get overly fat. It hurt's milk production. I try not to let the cattle get behind,” Brorsen says. “I have a lot of experience doing this so I know when to back off. We handle a lot of stocker steers too. We know what cattle weigh and how they're gaining.”
“I have to use good judgment. I don't want to get those heifers too fat, but I have to keep them gaining well. I know whether they're gaining or not. You have to have good genetics that utilize the feed and will grow,” Hamilton says. “It's easy to get one too fat. You have another set of problems when this occurs, than when that heifer is too thin.”
“You have to know what the cattle are gaining and what they're supposed to be gaining. If they aren't on track then it's time to do something different,” Williams says. “Underfed and underdeveloped heifers will not reach puberty at the proper time.”
Target weights and breeding seasons will also differ with different programs. Producers must define these endpoints and maintain a profitable scenario.
“I don't like to breed them to calve too early. For me, I like to calve heifers at 28 to 30 months of age rather than 24. I think those last few months of growing really pay off. I don't have calving problems and the heifers breed back,” Hamilton says. “The Brahman influence cattle are a little slower to mature. This gives them a chance to grow a little more and be ready to breed when I turn the bulls out.”
“You get maximum lifetime production if the heifer reaches puberty and can be bred as a yearling. Calving heifers at two has a lot of benefit,” Williams says. “Heifers that breed early tend to be more productive the rest of their life.”
“Cattle have to be cycling before you turn the bull out. If they aren't cycling, they're not going to breed,” Brorsen says. “If you have good genetics and good nutrition, they'll be cycling before you start trying to breed them.”
Breeding these heifers will provide the first opportunity for producers to apply selection pressure on fertility. Employing a shorter breeding season could help eliminate some of the profit robbers at an early stage. With what it costs to develop heifers, ranchers cannot afford to keep riding the proverbial dead horse.
“I recommend a heifer breeding season of no more than 45 days. Anything that doesn't breed needs to go. If you put selection pressure on fertility early, you can eliminate those that are sub-fertile or too late maturing. Those that breed early tend to exhibit greater fertility throughout their productive lives,” Williams says. “Calving late in the first year becomes a vicious cycle because they calve a little later every year until they eventually miss becoming pregnant. Make the difficult decision early and cull them.”
“Heifers are developed to 75 to 80 percent of mature weight when we turn the bulls out. We'll usually have around 90 percent conception rates. Any heifer that is open when we pregnancy test, is marketed as a feeder because they aren't the right kind,” Brorsen says. “We'll turn out bulls for 60 days May 1st. Our customers want to buy cattle that breed in the first 30 days of the breeding season. They like these heifers because they keep performing.”
“Even though I don't AI, I like to have my heifers on some sort of synchronization program,” Hamilton says. It just seems to help them get started cycling and they'll breed earlier.”
Some producers will turn their back on these heifers once they are bred. A good nutrition program will protect the investment and could ensure future profits. Heifers that have difficulty calving will usually fall out of the herd because there are other problems associated with a difficult birth. Proper selection and maintenance will add another productive member to the herd.
“A lot of people say don't get them too fat to calve. If you don't have them in good condition when they calve, you're not going to increase body condition, she's working too hard,” Hamilton says. “If you maintain good condition throughout the process, she'll breed back and be ready to go next year.”
“With proper sire selection and properly developed heifers, you should actually decrease dystocia within the herd. If you don't pay attention to sire selection and the heifer isn't developed right, you will have problems,” Williams says. “Once pregnant, those heifers need to continue to grow and gain at a moderate pace. For our Bos
indicus-influenced heifers, that is about six tenths of a pound per day until calving. Manage them in a separate group and try to have them calve at a body condition score of six on a one to nine scale. If you manage your heifers in the same pastures as the cows, it is impossible to optimize supplementation to support their development before calving or to support lactation, continued growth, and reproductive efficiency after calving.”
Proper heifer development will be more critical at this junction, in the beef business, than it has ever been before. It takes a lot of resources to get these females to their first lactation. Sound business models will put this at the top of the list because it could make or break the operation.
“There are a lot of good reasons, whether you purchase or develop your own replacements, to put emphasis on how they are developed. Cattlemen are trying to upgrade their herds and improve genetic worth with these females,” Williams says. “It is important to develop them right and select for fertility to get maximum lifetime production. Reproduction is at the top of the list when it comes to profit indicators, but breeders have to select replacements for what they want as a brood cow.”