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Genetic decisions, Heifer breeding requires analysis

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Douglas – “This is a good time in the cattle business to AI heifers,” says Willie Altenberg of Genex Beef. “We are turning the corner.”

Because the beef industry is poised to expand, Altenberg mentions that heifer development and breeding considerations will become more important moving into the future.

“We have 29.8 million beef cows,” he says. “We have stayed flat at 4.2 million beef replacement heifers, and the last five years, it’s been going down.”

Because of drought and high feed costs, heifers are worth a lot, so producers have sold their heifers in the past few years. However, weather is turning around, the cattle business is good and cow numbers are down.

“We want to rebuild, and how do we do that? We retain heifers,” Altenberg notes. “Heifers will be worth a lot of money.”

AI breeding

With 29.8 million beef cows in the herd, Altenberg estimates that of the cows bred by artificial insemination, 15 to 20 percent of those are heifers.

“Why do we breed more heifers on the percentage basis? We want to make sure we get the right bull for birth weight and calving ease,” he explains. 

By utilizing low birth weight, high calving ease bulls, Altenberg notes that heifers don’t need to be grown in a feedlot, they are easier to breed, calves don’t have to be sorted and there is no post-partum interval.

“When we AI heifers, we synchronize them, and they cycle and settle well,” he says. “They are easy to breed, and we generally get good results.”


“What I found interesting is that the spread between the unprofitable producers and profitable producers is bigger than it was five years ago,” Altenberg comments. “Profitable producers have high conception rates and more pounds per female exposed.”

Altenberg notes that conception rates are important for profitability.

“At the end of the day, if we can get females pregnant and if we have more pounds of calf to sell, we can be more profitable,” he says. 

AI breeding, he adds can result in higher conception rates.

With a synchronization program, Altenberg says approximately 60 percent of heifers bred in a single afternoon will get pregnant, and genetics companies who specialize in AI are skilled at achieving those rates.

When compared to using a bull to breed heifers, Altenberg figured that the cost is approximately $56.55 per pregnancy.

However, with an AI program, the cost per calf is $60 for the first 60 calves that are born, which is very similar to traditional breeding. 

Picking a bull

In choosing the right bull to breed, Altenberg notes that it is important to look for double-digit calving ease EPDs.

“The first thing we want when we are breeding our heifers is live calves, which means we want calving ease bulls,” Altenberg explains. “Red Angus and Herefords public calving ease numbers.”

While most Angus breeders don’t publish calving ease numbers, they do publish birth weights.

“Buy semen from a proven bull,” he adds. “My contention is that calving ease EPDs are more important, but producers should look at birth weights and ratios as well.”

Because the calving ease direct EPD incorporates birth weight, Altenberg notes that considering that number isn’t as important.

Saving replacements

Altenberg also notes that if producers set a threshold and stick to it, they can gauge their progress. 

“If ranchers pick a bull that has a 15 calving ease EPD, and it is easy, then the rancher can go to a lower calving ease bull or stay there,” he says. “I would rather have easier calving.”

After putting two years of investments into replacement heifers, Altenberg comments that it is important to make sure heifers calve easily in their first year.

“Don’t be a little afraid to give the heifers a little break,” he adds.
“We don’t have to throw our heifer calves away,” Altenberg comments. “Ranchers might be surprised. If they are able to give their heifers a little care, they can be the best cows in the herd.”

Altenberg presented at the 2013 Heifer Development Symposium held mid-September. Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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