Specialists provide tips for setting heifers up to breed early, increasing longevity in herd
Nutrition is one of the most important factors influencing the longevity of breeding cattle. Travis Mulliniks, beef nutritionist with the University of Nebraska West Central Research Center in North Platte, discusses the importance of nutrition in developing and breeding replacement heifers.
“Reproduction is the main factor limiting production efficiency in the beef cow herd,” he says. “Management early in life has long-term implications.”
“Early conception increases longevity in the herd,” he continues.
Kent Andersen of Zoetis tells producers they should select heifers that breed up early for genetic, environmental and management reasons.
“I would also encourage all producers to work with their veterinarian to develop a good vaccination program,” he says. “We should be willing to do everything we can, management-wise, to take advantage of that genetic experience.”
With replacement heifer development costs averaging $1,000 for the heifer, $500 in costs from weaning to breeding and $500 in costs each year after that to retain a heifer, it is not cheap to develop replacement heifers.
In fact, Andersen estimates each heifer to have a minimum value of $1,700 to $1,800.
“With that much money at stake, we want to set the stage for success,” he says. “It is important to minimize dropouts as much as possible. Do everything management-wise to set heifers up for success.”
The break-even cost for heifer development takes three to five years, Mulliniks shares. He tells producers nutrition plays a large part in getting heifers bred.
“Nutrition at the time of breeding is critical,” he explains. “It is not based on how much we feed but what we feed that is important.”
Genotype should also be matched with the environment when selecting replacements.
“It is important to consider the long-term implications of management protocols,” Mulliniks says. “Longevity has relatively low heritability.”
Mulliniks shares a study of 100 yearling heifers.
“As a yearling, 90 percent of them were pregnant, but by year two, only 80 percent were pregnant,” he explains. “Twenty heifers out of 100 head were lost within the first two years. By the third year, only 60 of the 100 were still in the herd.”
“The rate of dropping out of the herd is really high till they are three years old,” he adds.
Producers need a good pool of replacements to select from.
“We can accomplish that by buying the right bulls that have good maternal traits,” Anderson explains.
Also consider selecting heifers that have a good visual appearance and are earlier born.
If heifers can calve within the first 21 days of the calving season, Mulliniks thinks the heifer offspring will have a higher chance of becoming pregnant.
“Earlier calving animals seem to stay in the herd longer than later calving animals,” he explains.
Anderson says ranchers should also have a veterinarian score the heifer’s reproductive tract, measure the pelvis and perform a pregnancy test, if there is a possibility the heifer was bred while still on the cow.
The dam’s production soundness should also be considered, and production records like birthweight and weaning weight evaluated. Also, eliminate any heifers from dams with bad bags or disposition problems.
“Use all the information we have available to select heifers that are most likely to succeed,” Andersen says.
“There are some traits we can’t see,” Anderson continues. “But, we could utilize leverage technology to determine which heifers are the best and which cows are more likely to be in the herd long term.”
Using genetic testing methods, like the GeneMax system, Andersen says he can tell a lot about how a producer selects his bulls. In fact, by performing the 150K marker test, Andersen says he can tell more about a herd of cattle than from a producer who has gathered data for long periods of time.
The GeneMax Advantage test can be used to test Angus-based females, as well as an Angus-based bull battery. This genetic test scores cattle from 1 to 100, with a score of 50 considered average. If an animal scores above a 50, it is considered to be above average.
“Using indexes like this are meant to simplify life. It helps producers find the heifers that are the most efficient to help keep cow costs sensible,” Anderson explains.
However, Andersen tells producers they should still think about which heifers should be culled and which ones have the look of being highly productive in the herd.
“Some people think of these tests as a product to use to keep or cull, but don’t put it in a drawer and forget about it,” he cautions. “I can tell a lot about a producer’s bull buying habits based on how their heifers test,” he says. “The genetic benefit of doing these tests is to show producers what they should be paying attention to when they are purchasing a bull.”
The test costs $28 a head, but Andersen admits it isn’t very effective to test cattle that are less than three-quarters Angus. While the company is focused on developing genetic tests that can make predictions on crossbred cattle, it can still be used to determine the percentage of each breed in an animal.
“This is the first step in unlocking the genetic merit in a hybrid animal,” he says.
Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.