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Funston: Producers must manage cow maintenance costs to stay profitable

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

When Rick Funston, beef cattle reproductive specialist at the University of Nebraska, shared a theory about replacement heifer production, most ranchers in the room were stunned.

Funston noted that George Seidel of the Colorado State University Department of Biomedical Sciences and Reproduction appears to be looking into the potential application of only having two-year-old heifers in the cowherd. The process he has used includes using female sex semen to breed the yearling heifers. He weans the heifer calves early and places the mothers in the feedlot to finish. The daughters replace their mothers in the herd. Seidel has found that this eliminates the cost of maintaining a cow.

Most ranchers won’t choose this drastic of a way to manage their cows’ maintenance expenses, but Funston said maintenance is a cost producers need to be aware of. With grass prices continuing to climb and calf prices coming down from all-time highs, producers may have to start thinking out of the box if they want to be profitable in the cattle business, he added.

Managing feed

“With grass costs high, producers who can really need to utilize more corn residue,” Funston said. “If there are other cheaper resources available, they need to utilize those, to keep costs down.”

Although most ranchers prefer to see their cattle grazing grass on the prairie, the changing world is making that less possible. Grassland is being torn up to farm and purchased for housing developments.

With grassland becoming a scarcer commodity, many producers may have to consider confining their cows in a drylot for a period of time just to take advantage of cheaper feed resources.

Selecting cattle

Funston says ranchers also need to choose cattle that fit their environment and make the most use of them.

He stressed to producers that a bred heifer or cow is always worth more than an open one, so ranchers should not be afraid to have a long breeding season and a short calving season.

“Don’t be afraid to breed open females for fall calving,” he said. “Synchronize them. Put in a CIDR, take it out, give them a shot of prostaglandin and turn them out with the bulls or artificially inseminate them.”

“If they are heifers, they may have been younger, smaller females that just haven’t cycled yet,” he said.

Breeding opens

Traditionally, producers have been told heifers need to be at least two-thirds of their mature weight going into breeding or there could be problems getting them bred. However, Funston shared some trial data indicating that heifers at 50 to 55 percent of their mature weight can conceive if they are on an increasing plane of nutrition at breeding.

“Do the math,” Funston said. “At 60 percent of mature weight at breeding, starting with a 500-pound weaned heifer calf, which is not large by today’s standards, we have a lot of time to get them to the target weight.”

“A heifer rarely needs to gain more than 1.5 pounds per day. We don’t have to push them to get them bred,” he explained.

Limit feed

Cows can also be thin as long as they are on a climbing plane of nutrition at breeding.

“I would take a thin cow at breeding on an increasing plane of nutrition over a fat cow anytime,” Funston said.

Cattle in production do not need an unlimited supply of feed, Funston continued. In fact, research at Gudmundsen, Neb. on their own cowherd has suppressed the genetic potential in the mother cows.

“Most of our cows reach their mature weight by the time they are five,” Funston said. “With the very low input heifer development work we do here and the way we manage these cows, they are suppressed, especially when we look at their steer counterparts in the feedlot.”

In fact, Funston said these moderate-size cows are producing finished steer calves that weigh 1,700 to 1,800 pounds.

“As ranchers, we make a lot of management decisions based on the 15 percent replacement rate, but if we talk to a feedlot, they are concerned about performance, not calving ease,” he stated.

What about the cows?

Producers also need to understand the market seasonality for cull cows. If cows aren’t sold early in the fall when prices are traditionally higher, producers may want to consider feeding thin cows or rebreeding open ones.

“Through research, we have concluded that rebreeding a non-pregnant cow to be sold at a higher market price may be a viable economic alternative,” Funston said. “These late bred cows are a valuable marketing commodity.”

Reproductive failure

If producers can strategically manage young and old cows, they may be able to reduce reproductive failure. Selecting replacement heifers and females that fit the feed resources available and the environment is critical.

“A lot of the industry is getting hung up on feed efficiency,” Funston explained. “By simply increasing the number of progeny per dam through either selection, heterosis from crossbreeding or better management, we will increase efficiency of production. Feed efficiency is not necessarily production efficiency.”

He continued, “We do not need to keep feed in front of production animals all the time. Maybe we need to measure a pound of calf per pound of cow exposed?”

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

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