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Beef Cattle Research Council offers tips for raising heifer for reproductive success

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

The management and development of beef heifers prior to breeding and before, during and after their first calving will set the tone for a female’s entire productive lifetime. 

During a beef production webinar hosted by the Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC) on Jan. 17, Veterinary Agri-Health Services Dr. Elizabeth Homerosky and Chinook Ranch Owner and Operator Stephen Hughes share key insights on what to look for when getting heifers started to ensure they remain productive and become valuable mothers in the herd for years to come.

Post-weaning heifer development

“When making decisions related to herd development, it is helpful to consider the cow value curve,” Homerosky states. “The cow value changes over the female’s lifetime, creating a value curve which is quite different than a straight line of declining value.”

Evidence shows heifers typically appreciate from weaning until three years old. They are about five years old when they begin to depreciate rapidly.

“How do we extend this curve outwards?” she asks. “Let’s look at the impacts to heifer development systems.”

Homerosky says the primary goal of heifer development systems is to maximize economic efficiency, reproductive performance and longevity. 

“Traditionally, heifers were targeted to achieve 60 to 65 percent of mature body weight prior to puberty and breeding,” she adds. “What would happen if they got to 55 percent of their body weight?” 

Homerosky cites recent research from the University of Nebraska which utilized an alternative feeding strategy including three categories – early gain, even gain and late gain. 

The research reveals those in the late-gain category consumed 12 percent less feed and had a 15 percent increase of first-cycle pregnancies compared to the even-gain group.

Extensive systems

Research studies have found correlations between post-weaning growth rate, age at puberty and pregnancy rates in heifers.

Homerosky notes extensive systems work because heifers are being challenged early and develop better grazing habits.

“The more we treat her like a cow, the better cow she will be,” she remarks. “I like to see heifers graze alongside their mother during their first snowstorm, as I believe them watching their mother graze underneath the snow is quite valuable to them.”

She adds, “We want to take advantage of the compensatory gain, it is better to have a thin heifer gaining weight rather than an overconditioned heifer losing weight.”

In heifers, by altering the rate of gain and total percentage of mature body weight achieved prior to breeding, it is possible to influence the performance of their calves and subsequent pregnancy rate.

Pre-breeding management

Homerosky suggests producers evaluate heifers approximately six weeks prior to breeding, as it is a good time to assess what percentage of the herd is cycling and check on body conditions scores (BCS). 

“If their BCS is little less than what we like to see, we still have time to correct it,” she says. “This is also an ideal time to visit with a local veterinarian, discuss vaccination options and administer vaccine.”

Modified-live vaccines with fetal protection claim to protect the fetus from becoming infected with bovine viral diarrhea (BVD), she points out.

Many vaccines often contain a combination of four viruses – infectious bovine rhinotracheitis virus (IBR), parainfluenza 3 virus, bovine respiratory syncytial virus and BVD.

“It’s good to give these vaccines in advance, as IBR fragments can cause a slight reduction in fertility because it causes temporary inflammation in ovaries,” she says.

First-cycle calving and estrous synchronization 

Longevity and lifetime productivity are important factors influencing profitability for the cow/calf producer.

“Heifers were grouped into 21-day calving periods, and longevity and weaning weight data was collected on 16,549 individual heifers at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) conceiving during their first breeding season,” Homerosky shares.

“Heifers who conceived earlier in the breeding season calved earlier in the calving season and had a longer interval to rebreeding,” she says. “Calves born earlier in the calving season were older and heavier at weaning.”

U.S. MARC also reported heifers who calved during the first cycle, on average, stayed in the herd one year longer than heifers calving in their second or third cycle.

“By shortening up the breeding season and working with a veterinarian, the value of heifers calving in the first cycle are economically better for a herd program,” she continues.

Economists suggest it takes at least five calves for a heifer to pay for her original development costs and ongoing maintenance costs.

She mentions many producers utilize estrus synchronization to tighten up their calving interval, recommending shortening breeding down to 30 days.

Cows will calve within a few days of each other, lessening the time one needs to spend watching them. Tighter calving intervals create a more uniform calf group to market at weaning time.

Rising plane of nutrition

Hughes agrees with Homerosky.

“Cattle bred on an increasing plane of nutrition have shown higher pregnancy rates than cattle bred on a declining plane of nutrition,” Hughes states.

Since 50 to 70 percent of input costs are associated with feed, manipulating nutrition can make operations more profitable. However, manipulation must be done strategically in order to not affect future cattle performance, the two speakers conclude.

In essence, understanding the production cycle of the cow, the cow’s nutritional needs and how to manipulate the diet may save producers financially and can help prevent future reproductive failures.

Melissa Anderson is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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