Choose Replacements Carefully


   One key element to any cattle operation is selecting the best heifers to replace older cows that just do not earn their keep. Over the holiday weekend I attended a sale in Arkansas of primarily fancy bred heifers. The bred heifers were raised as replacements and at the top end of the consigning herds. The cattlemen at this auction were expecting high quality replacements and the prices were a reflection of their quality.
   Now I am sure that I will receive a few phone calls for what I am about to write, but… The drought of 2012 allowed for the culling of cows that were poor performers and retention of only the best heifers.  The recent herd expansion and high prices has caused retention of heifers, bulls, and cows that should not be retained in the breeding herd. While there were producers who took advantage of the high cull prices I still heard on numerous occasions of keeping that “poor cow another year to get another calf”.
   Choosing replacements, whether raising or purchasing, is a very important decision since it is a major investment for cow-calf producers. Replacement heifers (and cows) become the genetic building block for the cow herd. The primary goal is that the heifer will become a fertile cow that produces a calf annually for a long time.
   Cow-calf producers should evaluate the replacement heifer enterprise separate from the rest of the cow-calf enterprise and identify its economic strengths and weaknesses. Raising replacements requires additional management, labor, facilities, feed and other resources. Therefore, the total cost of developing a replacement heifer can be quite high. Producers need to carefully weigh the advantages of home-raised heifers against their costs.
   When evaluating the cost of home-raised heifers, a number of items should be considered including: Costs of production (feed, veterinary cost, mineral supplementation, utilities, labor, bull or AI cost, etc.); Opportunity cost of operator labor and owned feed resources; Pregnancy rates from the first breeding; Death loss; Cull income (non-breeding culls, culled yearlings, etc.); Initial weight and growth rate; and Heifer value at weaning.
   There is another important consideration for replacements (either cow or heifer): determine your production goals. Are you producing pounds of beef for the packer (a terminal cross) or are you producing quality breeding stock? Thus depending on your production goals, replacement females and the bulls used to breed those replacements should reflect those goals. While there are many fine bulls available, the bull used for a terminal cross to produce pounds of beef will not be the best for producing breeding stock and vice versa.
   Choosing the right bull can make an immense difference and when selecting specific sires, or sons of sires within a given breed for producing replacements, producers are encouraged to utilize EPDs for traits related to calving ease, early growth, optimum milk production, early puberty (scrotal circumference) and high heifer pregnancy, calm docility, sensible mature size and high stayability. Additionally, genetic information is available as to the quality of teats and udders as well as other soundness traits of daughters.
   When you decide to replace cows in your herd, choose those replacements carefully based on your production goals. Those replacements should stay in the herd for years and work for you by producing a calf each year. ∆
   DR. TERESA L. STECKLER: Extension Specialist, Animal Systems/Beef, Dixon Springs Agricultural Center, University of Illinois
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