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Replacement Heifers – The Ins and Outs of Costs and Managing Them for Success

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The Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC) is Canada’s national industry-led funding agency for beef research. The BCRC is funded through a portion of a producer-paid national levy as well as government and industry funding, and is directed by a committee of beef producers from across the country

This article, from the Beef Cattle Research Council of Canada, summarizes a recent webinar on the economics of replacement heifers and how to manage replacement heifers to give them the best chance of succeeding in our herds. You can see the entire webinar here. If you don’t have an hour to spare, this article also provides links to specific topics in the webinar, so you can drop in and listen to just those parts. I hope you enjoy this article. I think it’s an excellent look at ways we can adjust our operations to meet both profitability and herd health goals.

Do you raise your own heifers? Or do you prefer to purchase your replacements? Regardless of your choice, developing heifers costs money and requires careful management.

Ideally, replacement heifers will go on to become long-term producers in the herd so thoughtful selection is critical. “Each producer has different resources and goals when they make the decision of whether they want to buy or retain heifers,” said Kathy Larson, a University of Saskatchewan economist. “Part of that decision needs to involve cost of production,” she advised during a recent BCRC webinar.

Survey data shows that approximately 80% of producer respondents retain heifers, but Larson said the choice will be different for each producer and can vary from year to year. The following table outlines some key considerations between purchasing and retaining heifers.

Do you know what it costs you to keep your heifers for breeding? If calf prices are $2/lb, how many calves does a replacement female need to raise to recoup her costs?

It’s important to consider both cash and opportunity costs when raising heifers, Larson emphasized (skip ahead to 21:41). “When you retain heifers, you are essentially foregoing weaned calf sales. You are giving up the revenue you could have made when you decided to keep her,” Larson explained. Producers need to identify their own particular expenses for winter feed, mineral, bedding, and yardage and factor those costs in. After winter feeding, the cost of summer grazing for the replacement needs to be added, whether producers rent or own pasture.

The cost of breeding will depend upon on-farm specifics such as the purchase , years of service, the cull value, depreciation, and maintenance costs (skip to 25:23). Producers must consider their conception rates as well, Larson highlighted, and explained that the bred heifers must bear the cost of the opens (go to 27:13).

It takes heifers time to generate revenue. Larson explained that she doesn’t add in the cow’s value at culling. “We want them to have a productive life in our operations and not bank on recouping costs when the female is sold as a cow,” she said.

Looking at prices from a ten-year time span, Larson calculated it takes an average of six calves before a female has recouped her costs. However, depending on yearly weaned calf prices, or individual cost of production which can vary widely, it may take ten, twelve, or even more years to cover costs.

Money is just one piece of the puzzle, developing heifers requires attentive management. Dr. John Campbell, from the University of Saskatchewan’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine, focused on reproductive goals for replacements during the webinar.

Campbell explained that starting with a goal of “front-loading” the breeding season or aiming to have a high percentage of heifers pregnant early in the breeding season, will result in a uniform crop of heavier calves. Most importantly, it will set her up to have reproductive momentum, and provide her with the time she needs to recover from her first pregnancy and conceive early in next breeding season for her second pregnancy.

Campbell explained that heifers often have lower levels of immunity and can be more susceptible to infectious diseases (skip to 35:01). In order to reduce risks and avoid wrecks it’s essential to use a pre-breeding vaccination program that includes a modified live vaccine for diseases like infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR) and bovine viral diarrhea (BVD).

If producers are purchasing heifers, biosecurity is very important. “If you buy replacements, you need to know a little bit about where those heifers are coming from,” Campbell said. Understanding the source farm they come from, their vaccination program and history of infectious disease will help producers avoid bringing diseases like Johne’s disease or BVD onto their farms along with their heifers.

Heifers can be a “high risk” group, compared to their older herd mates (go to 41:39).  In most herds, they tend to have more losses from abortions, stillbirths, dystocia. Because they are still growing, heifers are also more susceptible nutritional problems. Inadequate levels of trace minerals, or low protein or energy can seriously compromise a heifer’s ability to breed.

Do you weigh your heifers to help determine if you are close to meeting your targets? “Weight is a highly important factor to determine the onset of puberty,” Campbell explained (skip to 44:57). In recent years there has been some debate about appropriate target weight at breeding. The old adage of breeding heifers when they were 55-65% of mature cow weight has been challenged and new research has shown that feeding heifers to a lower mature body weight may still result in reasonable reproductive performance. Campbell cautioned that there can be trade-offs though. While you might save money with feeding, moving down to a lower target weight will likely have fewer heifers cycling at the start of breeding. Producers may need a higher number of heifers in the replacement pen to compensate for potentially lower conception.

Producers may have a veterinarian palpate heifers to determine if they are cycling. They can also assess other breeding soundness parameters, including weight and condition, and identify flaws, such as a heifer with a narrow pelvis, prior to breeding.

It’s important to note that first-calf heifers have a longer post-partum interval and won’t cycle until 80-100 days post-calving (go to 50:15). “Having heifers calve before the rest of the herd will give them a fighting chance as a second calver to be bred early and calve at the start of the next calving season,” Campbell said. There are costs associated with that related to labour, particularly during calving, however calving heifers before cows is key to improving the lifetime productivity of females.

Data from a large study found that heifers calving in the first twenty-one days tended to stay in the herd significantly longer. “They tended to continue to calve in the first twenty-one days of breeding season and weaned heavier calves every year for six subsequent calvings,” Campbell explained, adding that the heavy calves were almost equivalent to one extra calf over their lifetime productivity.

There are a lot of factors that influence replacement heifer development. Putting thought into whether retaining or purchasing heifers is the best fit, as well as the money, management, and reproductive momentum needed can help producers achieve reproductive success.

Would you like to learn more? Click here to learn about upcoming BCRC webinars and to register for them.

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About the author

Publisher, Editor and Author

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.

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