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Funston looks at salvage value of cows as second-high production cost, suggests mitigation

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

When managing production costs, every rancher knows feed is their highest cost. But how many ranchers think about which cost runs a close, and in some cases a very close, second? According to Rick Funston, University of Nebraska beef reproductive specialist, salvage value of cows is a primary cost but one many producers don’t readily think about.

Salvage value is calculated by taking replacement cost less salvage value and dividing that by the number of productive years in the herd.

“It can approach feed costs in value, depending upon how much turnover there is in the herd,” Funston said.

Evaluating costs

Fortunately, if producers spend the time evaluating these costs, they can find ways to decrease this expense. The most common ways are reducing the initial cost, increasing the salvage value or increasing the number of years of productivity in the herd.

University of Nebraska has completed a lot of work proving it is possible to successfully raise a low-cost replacement heifer. In fact, Funston sees first-calf heifer pairs as an overpriced, valuable commodity.

“We have a female that we may not get to breed back and a calf that will be lighter in the fall because the sire was selected for calving ease,” he said.

Funston sees opportunities for producers to add a heifer development enterprise to their own ranches.

“There is a lot of opportunity with the heifer enterprise,” he explained. “With today’s genetics, we have a long time to put on not that many pounds to get a heifer bred. Heifers shouldn’t have to gain more than 1.5 pounds a day.”

“With four-dollar corn, some heifers get locked up in a feedlot, and they put on more pounds than they really need. It takes more feed and expense than what someone really needs to spend,” he continued.

Breeding heifers

Preliminary research in 1964 found that heifers need to be three-quarters of mature weight to breed. That research has been widely accepted, but Funston said the University of Nebraska has challenged this work and conducted several studies looking at how to get these heifers bred cheaper.

Feeding, age of heifer and weight at puberty have all been amongst the targets of these studies.

Their research has proven that how heifers are developed affects their longevity in the herd and that the quality of feed is more important than quantity.

“Those heifers that conceived in the first cycle had more of them still in the herd at nine years of age,” Funston said.

When these heifers weaned their sixth calf, they had effectively weaned an extra calf, just because they conceived early.


Typically, when producers develop a heifer management strategy, they manage the heifers from weaning to breeding. But, looking at the data from their research, Funston said managing heifers from birth to weaning actually explains more of the variation in age of puberty than from weaning to breeding.

One of these studies consisted of two groups of weaned heifers. One group was placed on cornstalks and fed one pound of 30 percent protein cube. They gained less than a pound a day. The second group of heifers was placed in a drylot where they were not pushed hard but still gained a pound a day.

These two groups of heifers were turned out on grass, synchronized and AIed. At 45 days, they were pregnancy checked.

Difference of gain

Funston said the heifers on cornstalks that initially gained less per day actually out-gained the drylot heifers when they were grazing side-by-side on pasture grass.

“They saw that resource differently than the heifers that were locked up,” Funston explained. “It can not all be attributed to compensatory gain. Part of it is behavioral.”

“The heifers that were allowed to graze actually had better pregnancy rates by grazing the forage they were expected to live on,” he said.

The heifers that had been in a drylot crashed, and the embryonic mortality rate was high when they went out to graze because they didn’t know how. These heifers had lower pregnancy rates and were unable to maintain their weight post-breeding like they did in the feedlot, he said.

Decreasing costs

Through their work, Funston said they have been able to find ways to decrease heifer development costs considerably and make the open heifer an asset to the operation because she is managed like a yearling.

Funston said one of the biggest challenges was finding ways to keep those heifers that don’t calve until late spring and summer on a climbing plane of nutrition during breeding.

The problem is, when it is time to breed those heifers, forage quality is going down, so it is harder to get heifers and younger cows bred, he explained. That’s why it is important to develop low input heifers that have been challenged.

Increasing salvage

Funston said producers need to evaluate their own operations to find ways to increase the salvage value of their cows. He did offer a few tips to consider.

“A bred animal is worth more than an open animal in today’s market,” Funston said. “Have a long breeding season and a short calving season.”

Some producers are concerned that by breeding these younger females longer, they are over compensating for some other problem or fertility issue and creating a problem for someone else. Funston said that talking with producers, most have indicated that usually this longer breeding period is a one-time thing for heifers because they just weren’t cycling at the beginning of the breeding season.

Research has shown that only one percent of those heifers that don’t breed up in the spring herd will come in open twice.

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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