by: Clifford Mitchell

Efficiency has become a big word for most cattlemen of recent times. Volatile grain prices and most costs related to the production scenario have producers constantly looking to get the most return from these resources. Conversions, rate of gain and other measures are easy to monitor for most outfits and often come to the forefront as chief indicators of efficiency.

Any indicator of performance that can be measured is a good thing for most producers to evaluate. These indicators are often easily deciphered and can be used for steady improvement. Evaluating reproductive efficiency is a little different story. Sometimes the results are a little harder to see and cattlemen tend to make some excuses for poor performance in this arena.

Getting cattle into production is the first step in defining some of the efficiencies associated with the maternal lines. Proper treatment and development will ensure these females readily step into the role of productive momma cow.

“Puberty is a function of age and weight. Physiologically, Bos Indicus cattle are later maturing and have a slower growth rate which makes it difficult for them to breed up sometimes,” says Dr. Joe Paschal, Texas AgriLife Extension, Corpus Christi, Texas.

“If you are planning to breed heifers to calve at 24 months, you can't wean them and put them out on dry pasture and expect them to breed up. With our Brangus females we expect them to calve at 2 and usually have a high percentage that calve in the first 30 days,” says Danny Farris, Farris Ranching Company, Tuscola, Texas.

Heifers are always a delicate piece of the puzzle. Identifying parameters and the production protocol is a good first step for most producers.

“Producers have to identify a target weight for these heifers, according to what the goal is for mature cow size,” Farris says. “If you reach that target weight at 14 to 15 months of age those heifers should be cycling.”

“Step up the rate of growth in these heifers. Make sure all of the animals have proper weight and age to reach puberty,” Paschal says. “This will insure the majority of those heifers are coming into heat at the proper time.”

Nutrition plays a big role in this process. Developing these heifers in an economic manner and reaching proper target weight at the right time can be achieved.

“These heifers require better nutrition and better management. Get these cattle to some high quality forages to help develop them. You may have to use some supplement, but you don't have to push these heifers real hard to change growth rate,” Paschal says. “It is important to make sure all of the heifers reach the target weight, it's not an average weight. If it's an average weight, half the heifers will be below the target weight and will have trouble cycling. It doesn't make a difference how you get them there, just make sure all heifers are at the target weight when you're ready to breed them.”

“You have to know where heifers are weight wise and when you plan to breed them. Most years we have wheat pasture available and it doesn't take a lot of effort to make sure those heifers get to the target weight,” Farris says. “Producers have to be aware they can't just go off age when they start breeding these heifers. You have to reach that target weight for the whole group to get them cycling. Some producers will have enough experience to know those heifers are getting there just by looking at them. Other cattlemen may need to take individual weights.”

Proper mineral supplementation is sometimes over looked. Asking heifers to conceive and calve at the desired age may already be pushing them just a little. Mineral is a big part of keeping the system functioning.

“A good mineral program, for your area, is essential,” Farris says. “You can't cheat your genetics they need the tools to express them. A proper mineral program can help those cattle, at different times of the year, stay in top condition.”

“It's always worth investing in a good mineral program. Certain programs might look at chelated minerals because they do have value in some production scenarios,” Paschal says. “Start while you are developing these heifers and carry this program through breeding. Make sure they have proper mineral consumption.”

Blending management with genetic selection always can help the bottom line. Most cattlemen know the cow herd and which female lines continually produce with above average results or are the first to calve every year. Fertility sometimes gets lost in the selection process. Producers have so much information available, often maternal traits fall through the cracks.

“I know how my female lines perform. I want to have 70 to 75 percent of the calves born within the first 30 days of calving season. It boils down to selection process and how they are managed,” Farris says. “Brangus cattle are just as fertile as any other breed. You have to select for early maturity. It doesn't take long to build up fertility if you select the right heifers. Our fertility and maturity really shows up in the scrotal circumference of our bulls.”

“Whether you AI or turn out bulls, you have to select heifers from cattle at the front end of the calving season. You have challenged these genetics and they are responding by calving in the first 30 to 45 days of calving season,” Paschal says. “This will help the extra management pay for itself. Producers have to team genetics with nutrition. This starts by picking replacements out of the more fertile females.”

Selection varies from outfit to outfit and depending on resources most operations will keep a few extra heifers. Usually, the middle cut of those females is harder sort or could need a little more time.

“I usually keep about 30 percent more heifers than I will need. I am always culling. There will be a few that won't breed and I'll get rid of some that have structure problems,” Farris says. “It's always good to have some bred heifers to sell because that is a specialty market and they usually bring a pretty good price.”

When to calve heifers is highly debated and will be different on a lot of operations. Assigning the proper costs to the development process will help producers decide the most economical time for heifers to calve. Calving season, weather patterns and common sense will also impact this decision.

“It could get expensive if producers let heifers slide three months and then try to push them to that target weight in 30 to 45 days. At 24 months heifers will have more difficulty calving than those that calve at 30 or 36 months of age,” Paschal says. “Heifers that calve at 27 to 30 months of age probably didn't reach the target weight at the desired age. Those cattle will have extra cow costs against them right out of the gate due to 30, 45 or 60 days of additional nutritional management. That extra carrying cost will pay for some extra feed in the development process. Reaching minimum target weight is usually cheaper than additional cost. Every month later that she calves, it costs at least an extra $30 per head.”

“Economically you have to calve these heifers somewhere between 24 and 30 months of age. You can't hold them to 36 months that is too long. It's a lot easier to take a heifer from 550 pounds to 750 pounds than it is to get weight on later,” Farris says. “Each individual producer needs to weigh the circumstances and see how much additional inputs he can put into those cattle. Most producers can't afford to free up ground and have no production. At the same time, if you are a spring calving herd only, calving heifers at 30 months of age isn't an option. Each producer has to make the best use of his resources and management.”

Nutrition, maturity and age all play a role in getting heifers to cycle. Producers need to know heifers are cycling and keep records. This will answer some questions when cattle are preg checked.

“It is a good idea to make sure heifers are cycling before you use a synchronization program or turn bulls out. Putting these heifers where they can see bulls will have a psychological affect and may help heifers start cycling,” Paschal says. “If they can smell bulls, this sometimes will help get them show signs of estrus. AI programs help these cattle calve in a short period of time to proven calving ease bulls and you can still clean this group up with out losing much time.”

“I brand our heifers about the time they are a year old. From branding until breeding, I can tell if those heifers have been cycling. This helps a lot because I can tell the ones that have been ridden,” Farris says. “More importantly, this helps me identify the heifers that aren't cycling. These may be problem cattle or later maturing females that need to be culled.”

Making sure cattle are cycling and at the right level of maturity are important factors. In some areas, weather patterns will also impact how heifers breed and later maturing females sometimes have little chance to conceive.

“I have never had a 100 percent breed up in a short breeding window. I know sometimes these heifers cycle in waves and it may overwhelm my herd bulls in a single sire pasture,” Farris says. “During our breeding season, it starts to get hot the last week of June. We could easily string together some 100 degree days. This is not good on anything, especially heifers that are trying to cycle.”

“Producers have to plan their breeding season. The heat makes it hard for cattle to breed and stay bred,” Paschal says. “Sometimes producers don't have a lot to say about the weather. That is why it is important for heifers to be cycling and ready to breed. Thirty days could make a lot of difference. When it gets hot it's hard for those heifers to cycle and bulls have reduced semen quality. Try to plan your breeding season for good temperatures.

Handling cattle properly will always pay dividends. Working with potential herd members to cull for docility has become a big step to improving conception rates and increasing performance levels. This could be an important step in the keep/cull decision process.

“Anything we can do to improve disposition will help remove the “poor feeders and poor breeders,” Paschal says. “The easier those cattle are to handle the better breed up you are going to have in certain management scenarios.”

The time it takes to develop heifers properly, reach target weights and then identify which cattle have added value is a long process. Changing the growth rate and selecting for earlier maturing females will help get these heifers into production at an early age.

Cattlemen must be able to provide a specific level of management, use proper selection and hope for good forage resources to make selected females dollar generators.

“As cattlemen establish a system for developing females to the proper target weight, nutrition may need to be worked on until some selection pressure can be put on fertility within the herd,” Paschal says. “I like to have those heifers in BCS 6 at breeding because I want a little insurance. Plan to have high quality forages or supplement them, whatever works as long as you reach target weight. Producers can have success calving American breed cattle at 24 months on age with proper management.”

“It is easier to make some decisions with more experience and records you keep. There are a lot of factors. Everybody has a protocol that works within their management scenario,” Farris says. “Selecting ranch raised females that are developed and managed in my environment is worth a lot to me. It takes three years from the time you make a breeding decision to see if you made the right choice. Find what works and use it to your advantage.”


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