Selection and development of replacement heifers (Proceedings)


Selection and development of replacement heifers (Proceedings)

Aug 01, 2009

When discussing replacement heifers in a beef herd, a few questions must be answered before we even select our first potential replacement. First, does this farm or ranch need to calve out heifers? Reasons for never calving out heifers could include labor shortage at calving time; lack of facilities in case of dystocia; historically poor nutrition of young cows and heifers; and historically poor fertility of nursing two year-olds. If any of these situations are present, buying bred cows or cow-calf pairs is likely the most pragmatic option available. There is nothing wrong with this option.

If calving heifers seems to be a positive option, then we must decide if the owner will retain his own heifers or purchase his replacements (bred or open). Reasons to keep your own heifers include less disease risk; less costly (?); herd has excellent genetics; herd has excellent records; and known disposition of heifers. Reasons to purchase heifers would be nearly the opposite of the previous list along with: desire to keep current herd bull that is the sire of your heifers; want to introduce new genetics into your herd; desire to use a terminal cross bull and cheaper to buy than raise your own.

The reason that I mention options other than the traditional "breed what you produce" is that many producers would benefit from purchasing females for the various reasons listed above. Look at the swine industry where 15-20 years ago the majority of producers raised their own replacements and now the majority, purchase their replacements. The beef industry will likely never change to the extent that the swine industry has due to the extremes in environment that we all face. But, I am quite certain that the fed cattle market will continue to become much less tolerant of cattle that don't fit the most common grid marketing options.

Another question we must answer is "is keeping heifers financially the right thing to do this year?" As the price of feeder cattle rises, the number of heifers kept for breeding should always go down or be zero. With the 10-12 year beef cycle, heifers kept in years of peak prices will produce calves that will be sold in years of much lower prices. John Lawrence at Iowa State did a herd simulation in 1996 and showed that by keeping more heifers at low prices and fewer at higher prices the herd netted an extra $4000/year (100 cow herd) when they used the "keep low, sell high" strategy.

No matter if your producers are going to raise their own heifers, buy them or if another producer is going to customize his business to specialize in raising replacement heifers, someone is going to raise them. This talk will hopefully address the major challenges and concerns of raising replacement heifers.


Producing and developing heifers is one of the most costly endeavors in the beef business. Studies show the average cost is between $700 and $1500 to produce a heifer from birth to calving at two years of age. This investment takes 5 - 6 years to generate a positive cash flow in your client's herd.

Records show that profitability is improved in herds with increased cow longevity because the herd comprises a low percentage of heifers. So, it is in everyone's best interest to select heifers that have an outstanding chance to remain in the herd for many, many years

Our herds on the Total Beef Herd Health Program ranked heifer selection/development as a high priority item. We discovered after utilizing many years of records that most of us select heifers exactly opposite of how we should. We learned that instead of finding reasons to keep heifers as replacements, we were better served by finding reason's NOT to keep a heifer. The reason we did the about-face is that when we found a reason (excuse) to keep a heifer, she generally did not stay in the herd a long time.

An example of this would be an extremely high weaning weight heifer that was extreme in her frame score. Sure, her mother was one of our best cows (½ British; ½ Continental), but this heifer would become a hard-fleshing, 1700# mature cow that would have a hard time getting re-bred on time. This is not our goal. Other "excuses" to keep her include: being out of the best cow in the herd, out of a superior AI bull, phenotypically appealing, the right color, etc.