Taking advantage of professional heifer development services can free up some of your most valuable resources and give your replacement heifers the kind of TLC they really deserve.
Not nearly enough rain fell around Graham, Texas, in the spring and summer of 2000 for rancher Bob Bachman to have enough grass to grow out more than 200 replacement heifers. And he really didn't want to lose the genetic progress he'd been working so hard on by sending the heifers to town – so he shipped them off to Heartland Cattle Co. in McCook, Neb., to be grown out and bred.
When he got the heifers back to Texas the following August, they were 90 days safe in calf. “It turned out by the time they calved, I considered it a smart move because we had some rain and needed the numbers to go back on grass. It's another tool that opens your options,” Bachman explains.
Over the last 14 years, Heartland Cattle Co. has developed roughly 48,000 head of heifers for producers in 31 different states, says Patsy Houghton, co-founder of the company. “This was the organization that coined the term, ‘professional heifer development,'” she says.
“We started this in 1990. At the time, I was on faculty at Kansas State University and doing a lot of research work at an area feedyard,” Houghton explains. “The whole concept of value added marketing was just coming into being. In working with all those feedyard cattle and seeing the dramatic differences that existed in quality and kind and type, it seemed to me like our industry was doing a real good job at that point in time of evaluating genetics on the bull side of the equation.
“But no one was paying any attention to the fact that 50 percent of every calf's genetics comes from the female,” she says. “It seemed to me like there was a real opportunity in this industry to maybe take hold of the female side of this thing and provide a service that nobody at the time was providing.”
Why would that many producers be willing to ship their heifers off to another state, putting the future of their cowherd in somebody else's hands and paying good money to do it? For one thing, developing your own heifers at home comes with its own set of costs – probably more than you realize when you consider all the hidden costs tied up in forage availability, facilities, time and labor.
For example, Houghton says one of the biggest benefits of off-ranch development is actually an indirect benefit. “Heifers require extra management and care and the ranch's best feed resources. If you get those heifers off ranch, now you can make better use of your grass resources,” she explains. “A comparable number of mature, producing cow units can be added to your production system and can result in improved cash flow because you now wean more calves per acre of grass.
“You have more efficient use of forage by mature cows due to their increased physical capacity and lower net energy requirements for gain. Mature cows are really your best utilizers of your ranch grass resource. And you are really trying to farm that grass and produce pounds of beef per acre of grass,” Houghton says.
Or, like Bachman, getting your replacement heifers off the ranch during a time of drought can give your land a chance to heal up while still holding onto your genetics. Also, when your feed, facilities and labor aren't tied up in your replacement heifers, you have the opportunity to take better care of your 2- and 3-year-olds, Houghton points out.
“Frankly, if you put a pencil to it, it's those 2- and 3-year-olds that drop out of your herd that really cost the rancher money because they've got maximum investment at that point and minimal return,” she explains. “Those younger cows need a higher-quality diet necessary for final growth, maturity and lactation.
“The other thing about being able to separate off those 2s and 3s is that now you're feeding your mature cows appropriately. In other words, if you feed your mature cows with your 2s and 3s together, what a rancher will do is feed to the average of the group,” she says.
“So in effect, what you're doing is overfeeding a huge portion of your cow herd and that's terrible use of feed dollars. Those mature cows can now be roughed through a little bit more and still not compromise them from a reproductive standpoint. You've done a better job of managing feed costs all the way through.”
A direct benefit of utilizing a professional heifer developer is the opportunity to AI-breed those heifers to high-accuracy (EPD) bulls. That means you don't need to buy separate calving-ease bulls for your first-calf heifers or manage an extra pasture to separate them from the mature herd and the different types of bull you might choose to run with them.
The extra time and attention that a professional heifer developer can give your heifers can pay dividends beyond the first calf, too.
Houghton explains: “Probably one of the real big improvements that our customers have seen after they've developed heifers through our program is that, on average, they've seen about an 8 percent increase in second calf rebreed rate when compared with the previous on-ranch developed heifers.
“That's probably due to proper nutrition from weaning to first calving, the elimination of problem heifers prior to the first breeding season and earlier-born calves, therefore giving the heifer more time to rebreed,” she explains.
Heartland develops the heifers in a feedyard setting on a high-roughage, limit-fed nutritional program. About 60 percent of their heifer yard capacity is taken up by custom-developed heifers that ranchers send to them; the rest of the yard is filled with contractual heifers the company procures for producers, according to individual ranch specifications.
Both types of heifers are managed the same way, which includes a breeding soundness exam about 30 to 45 days pre-breeding. The heifers are evaluated for pelvic area, reproductive tract scores, functional soundness and anything that might reduce their breeding ability, including hard-doing females.
The rancher is sent a detailed pre-breeding report at that time, with recommendations for which heifers might not be good candidates to keep as replacements.
“We do offer to buy those heifers from our customers so that we can put them into our feedyard program,” Houghton says, adding that Heartland has two commercial feedyards. “We can go ahead and collect feedyard, carcass and marketing data on the cattle for what will eventually be their bred heifer mates.”
That information, combined with performance and reproductive data collected on the heifers that are grown out and bred, as well as the ranch's own records, can help producers identify cow herd strengths and weaknesses, she says. For example, are the genetics and resources of your operation better geared to producing maternal genetics or would you be better off concentrating on a terminal-cross breeding system?
“The heifers that stay in the program undergo the Colorado MGA synchronization program,” Houghton says. “We give our customers a choice of 15, 30 or 45-day AI seasons. This is a total AI program with no clean-up bulls. Every bred heifer that's ever left here has been an AI pregnancy.”
At 45 days after the last day of each group's designated breeding season, they pregnancy test the heifers with ultrasound and the heifers are then ready to go home. While some may be wary of putting heifers back on grass that have been in a feedlot for several months, Houghton says they've never had a set of cattle that had a tough time adapting back to the pasture.
“All the development is done in the yard. People always cringe when they hear that, because they just assume there are high amounts of concentrates fed and there's not,” she explains. “We're constantly monitoring body condition to have the cattle at the right body condition and weight when they're bred and also when they're delivered home.
“But the basis of this ration is very high forage. Particularly in the last 45 days in the yard prior to going home, we work at what we call hardening the cattle up – getting them ready to go back to grass,” Houghton says. “Their gut is stretched and they're ready for high forage intake. The last 45 days in the yard they see no grain whatsoever. So those cattle are ready to go back and adapt to grass.”
What does it cost to get all these services? Houghton calculates an average cost of $1.50 to $1.55 per head day, based on the 48,000 head they've run handled so far. That includes all the health processing and pre-and post breeding examinations, AI expenses, records, feed, yardage, etc.
They require heifers in a 30-day AI season to stay for 165 days; heifers bred for a 45-day season need to be there a minimum of 180 days. They want the heifers delivered at least 90 days prior to the first day of their designated breeding season to get the heifers right nutritionally, says Houghton. Plus, they want to hold the cattle for 45 days after breeding to make sure only low-risk, intact pregnancies are sent home to the ranch.
“So if you put that all together, you're talking in the neighborhood of $250 to $280 a head, all inclusive to get everything done with these cattle,” Houghton says. “That's not a guaranteed cost, that's averaged over a whole lot of cattle and a lot of years.”
She says whether a producer determines if that is affordable or not depends on how you look at your costs. “For example, if he's going to put opportunity value on his labor and time, which he should, then we can probably do it for less money than he can do it at home. Now if he refuses to attribute any costs to his labor and facilities…it just depends on how you evaluate your expenses.”
Of course to make an informed decision, you have to also consider the other side of the profit equation – revenue. How much would it be worth to your operation to be able to run more mature cows capable of producing a calf during the time your replacements are off-ranch?
Could more focused management on your younger cows keep more of them in the herd rather than getting culled for being open at rebreeding time? And – what is it really costing you to develop your own heifers now?
Bought on contract
Producers are often told that it is more economical for them to buy replacement heifers rather than raise their own. That may be, but some folks like Mike Holland of Rancho de Paz in Mineral Wells, Texas, have determined that buying replacements is essential for genetic improvement rather than economics.
Several years ago, after sending some cattle through the B3R™ Country Meats program and getting back feeding and carcass performance information, Holland realized this long-time family ranch needed to change their genetics. Having read about Heartland's heifer program in a magazine article, he went to Nebraska to see the program first-hand.
Since then, Holland and his son, Daniel, have been buying their replacements on contract from Heartland, by the truckload, as they continue to change over their breeding program.
“We've had real good luck with it,” he says. “They're probably a little more expensive than it would be to raise your own, but we're not in a position yet where we can do that. I just tell (Houghton) what type of animals, the breed and size, and then she goes out and finds what we're looking for.”
In fact, programs like Heartland can be as precise as you want to get when it comes to buying replacement females for you. For example, you can place your order for 25 head of black baldie heifers, bred to calve one month before the rest of your herd and the size and type of females that can maintain body condition in a limited feed resource environment.
Put $250 a head down and pay the balance when they're delivered, bred safe-in-calf to a low birthweight bull of your choice.
“It is not unusual for us to put a set of say, 200 head of heifers, out on a contractual basis that might have conceived in two weeks,” Houghton explains. “Maybe they only have one inch difference in hip height, from top to bottom or just a fraction of a frame score difference. And they might only have 100 pounds weight range from top to bottom in 200 head. They might all be black or brocks and baldies or red-hided cattle.
“We've had people come to us and request 50 head of half-sib females; that's not the norm. That's somebody who's trying to get real specific in terms of what they're doing,” she says.
Houghton says the majority of her contractual customers fall into two categories: small producers looking for only 10 to 20 heifers per year or large producers in the 200-plus range. She says this option makes sense for the smaller producers from a time efficiency standpoint. The folks buying by the truckload are generally either trying to get their program off the ground or they have a terminal-cross program where they send all their calves to market.
Holland says their experience in the B3R™ program and the genetics and management they've bought through Heartland have caused them to be better cattlemen than we were 40-something years ago.
“What we're doing really makes you pay attention,” he says. “We're selling genetics instead of pounds. Actually, it's both but the better the genetics the better the pounds. We came out of the feedlot here last week for B3R™ and we got a premium of about $6 above the fed market. And we can improve on that considerably by watching what we're doing with our cattle.”
Bachman also bought some contract heifers from Heartland after his initial experience with custom development. Good genetics and good timing resulted in a good deal. Those heifers calved in the Spring of 2002, and came out of the B3R™ feedlot program just in time to catch the record prices we saw in 2003 – averaging a gross return, after feed, of about $1,100 a head.
“I thought I was born at the right time again,” says Bachman. “That first calf brought enough to pay for the whole deal. That'll get your attention.”
In the big picture, whether it's custom or contract cattle, Houghton says the Heartland heifer development program is actually a stepping stone to their bigger goal – closing the information loop from gate to plate.
“We got into the feedyard business about three or four years ago in an effort to accomplish our overall goal,” she explains. “What we were trying to do was work genetically with cattle to get them right for feedyard and retail systems, but we also wanted to maintain ranch productivity of the cow.
“With the addition of our feedyard program, we can do a real good job of tracking performance and carcass information on all these cattle. We also are working with two high quality (mid Choice and higher) retail programs. It has always been our goal to get involved in programs where we could take brand name product all the way to the retail level and supply ranchers with a productive cow on ranch that can put out a very high quality, consistent product in the feedyard and on the rail,” Houghton adds.
“We felt like the heifer development program, besides providing a very needed service in the industry, is a great way to get to work with ranchers in terms of developing some confidence so that we could work with them on their total cow herd program and be involved in beef production all the way to the retail level. That's what it's all about.”
What about acclimation?
Environmental acclimation is an issue for many Texas and Oklahoma producers, but Patsy Houghton of Heartland Cattle Co. in McCook, Neb., says adaptation hasn't been much of a problem for her customers – with one exception.
“We have placed a lot of cattle in Texas and Oklahoma. That really hasn't been a problem,” she says. “It depends on what part of Texas and Oklahoma you're talking about. In those regions of the state where fescue is not an issue, it's not a problem. In regions of the state where fescue is an issue, it can be and has been a problem.
“We try to work with any customer located in fescue country in great detail before we'll even concede to sell them heifers. Because there is an adaptation process and, in my experience, it's about an 18-month process. Those cattle need extra feed and attention and care to get through that adaptation process and very frankly, some of them never get along,” Houghton says.
On the flip side, when Graham rancher Bob Bachman sent 230 head of Brangus-type heifers to Houghton in Nebraska to be custom developed, his cattle had no problems going or coming.
“We shipped them up there in November and got them back in August,” he says. They had one of the toughest winters they'd had in a long time, but they came through okay.”