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Ask the Consultant: Understanding the dollar signs behind where you get your replacement females

Jason Bradley for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 January 2018
Heifers in holding pens

Choosing whether to buy bred heifers or breed your own replacements requires an honest assessment of your time, resources and energy to put into the work.

When it comes time to acquiring replacement females for your cattle herd, there are many different options available: You could use your own cow herd and keep the heifers you need. Maybe outsource and purchase virgin heifers from a different operation and breed them to the bull of your choice.

Perhaps buy from someone who has bred heifers that would roll straight into your program.

Which one is the best? Well, the answer is: It depends. Like so many things in agriculture, the method that works perfectly for one operation can end in disaster for another. That’s why it’s so important to know what the costs are for a particular method while understanding what benefits you’ll get back in return.

One of the biggest trade-offs that can be made is the quality of the replacement for what the cost is. We all know the higher the quality of animal, the higher the price. But what makes its quality so high?

Scenario 1: Buying bred heifers

Let’s pretend we’re going to purchase our replacements. We’ve found two operations to buy from that have the type of heifers we’re looking for. We want these replacements to be bred so they can roll straight into our cow herd after calving. One of the operations has heifers guaranteed bred to a bull with all the genetic traits we could want.

These calves should also match the calves we’re going to be getting from the rest of the herd, giving us a more uniform calf crop when we market them.

The other operation turned out a bull with the exact same genetic potential at the exact same time. They just can’t guarantee their bull is the one to which the heifers are bred because a bull from the neighbor’s decided to come through the fence.

You’re probably going to be able to get the second set of heifers for a cheaper price because of the risk of a lower-quality calf. The more requirements we put on the heifers we’re looking for, we restrict the number of eligible heifers available for purchase. As the supply of eligible heifers drops, the value of those remaining is going to be driven higher and higher.

Scenario 2: Breeding your own replacement heifers

If it’s going to cost us an arm and a leg to buy the high-quality bred replacement heifers we want, why don’t we just breed our own replacements? We already have the cow type we want, so let’s just get a bull with the genetics to give us great replacement heifers. Another plus is: We will be able to breed our new heifers to the bulls we want.

Before we do that, we need to consider what a replacement method like this is going to require. Let’s assume we need 15 replacement females. When we breed the heifers, we’re only going to get 90 percent of them bred – so to make sure we have 15 bred heifers, we need to breed 17 heifers.

Now, to give us a little flexibility when we select the heifers we’re going to keep, we want to keep a few extras to choose from. We’ll keep three extras, giving us the need for 20 heifers. Statistically, half of the calves are going to be bulls, so we need to breed 40 cows to the bull we selected for replacements.

If we use the same 90 percent conception rate, we need to use 45 cows now. Guess we need to get more than one bull to get our 15 replacements. We also need to make sure to closely manage our cattle to prevent any inbreeding.

Something we haven’t brought into the mix yet is the time it’s going to take to make all this happen. It will be almost two-and-a-half years from when we turn the bulls out to when our replacements are at the same stage we would have bought them.

Which scenario is best?

Of the two scenarios, which one is the better option? We would know what it costs to purchase quality replacements from an outside source without tying up any additional time or resources. To compare it to our retained replacements, we would need to consider the costs of our time in managing everything along with the costs of feed and vaccines while developing the heifers.

We would also need to consider the lost revenue that comes from having to decrease the herd size in order to accommodate our replacement heifers during development, breeding and early gestation. Retaining our own heifers as quality replacements may save us a little in expenses in the end, but it comes as a trade-off to our time as a manager.

Coming up with an estimated cost can be done through calculations, but only you can be the judge of knowing which is the better option because only you know your abilities as a manager.

These are just two of the many ways available to obtain replacement heifers for your herd. Each method has positive attributes, but each also has downfalls. The important takeaway is to take the time to consider which one best fits your needs based on the available resources and your confidence in your abilities to carry it out.  end mark

PHOTO: The more requirements placed on heifers we’re looking for, we restrict the number of eligible heifers available to buy. Staff photo.

Jason Bradley
  • Jason Bradley

  • Agricultural Economics Consultant
  • Noble Research Institute
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