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Cows vs. heifers: Weighing the investment

Wendy Sweeter Published on 14 December 2015
heifers

Beef producers looking to increase their cow herd should evaluate the payoff when deciding between buying heifers and cows.

Trent Milacek, Northwest area agricultural economic specialist with Oklahoma State University Extension, talked about making that decision with producers at two cow-calf producer meetings held in Oklahoma in November.

When making the decision to expand their cow herd, Milacek suggested producers know their stocking rate.

“Every time we talk about this type of thing, we really drive home having the correct stocking rate on their ranch,” Milacek said.

If their stocking rate is good, they need to figure out how much extra grass they have. A lot of producers got in trouble when the most recent drought hit Oklahoma and Texas.

“A lot of guys, that’s where they got in trouble during the drought, is no one foresaw the drought coming as bad as it did,” Milacek said. “And when it did, we had to liquidate a lot of our cattle herds.”

If producers are already at their maximum stocking rate and they are thinking of feeding cheap forage, Milacek said that can be risky.

“That type of thing is kind of risky because you’re basing a very long-term decision on a short-term availability of forage,” he said.

Once producers have established whether or not they would be exceeding their stocking rate by purchasing more cattle, they need to look at the payoff of buying heifers or older cows. Milacek said buying heifers is the longer payoff.

Generally a cow is going to be less expensive than a heifer, he said. It takes longer to develop a heifer than a proven cow.

“When you start developing a heifer, you have to keep more heifers than you’re going to allow to enter the herd because you’re going to cull some heifers. Some heifers won’t get pregnant. Some just aren’t going to turn out to be the cows you thought they were going to be,” he said.

If the producer ends up selling that culled heifer, they will not make as much as they would have if they sold her as a weaning calf or a stocker calf, Milacek said.

If producers get heifers bred, then they need to think about calving loss. Do they have enough labor to monitor heifers in case of calving trouble?

If keeping their own replacement heifers, Milacek said producers should ask themselves if they have the genetics they want to grow their herd. Or, maybe they need to look at buying a heifer from a breeder that has the genetics they want.

With older cows, generally the payoff is quicker than with heifers.

“Usually the investment in an older cow, you get a payoff quicker. [There’s] a shorter time line there as opposed to investing in a heifer because you have to have five years sometimes before she actually ends up paying herself off,” Milacek said.

Cows will usually calve easier and are likely healthier. Buying an older cow should be proven if buying from a reputable source.

When buying older cows, Milacek said they need to be healthy. Do not buy cows that are less than body condition score 5. Buying open cows is not ideal.

“Buying cows that aren’t bred is worrisome because there might be a reason why they aren’t bred. I would say the overall health, genetics and source of those cows are very important things to pay attention to,” Milacek said. “Like with anything used, it can be a good used instead of a wore-out used.”

If producers are deciding between a young cow and a heifer, the cost is almost a wash.

“The difference between a young cow, old cow and a heifer is sheerly the amount of investment that’s involved,” Milacek said. “Interest costs can eat up a lot of your profits.”  end mark

PHOTO: Heifers usually carry a longer payoff for producers, but they will be more of an investment. Staff photo.

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