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Flexible management is the key to heifer development

Zach McFarlane for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 October 2019

Keep or cull? This is an annual question beef producers ask themselves. Most producers focus on pregnancy outcome. However, a statement I have often heard is the following: “Well, this cow has always produced a good calf.”

But the fact remains, this cow did not produce a calf this year. Culling decisions are the most crucial for first-calf heifers. Heifers are a massive investment, whether you choose to purchase or to develop heifers yourself. One course of action is to let management make that culling decision for you.

Heifers are the most fertile cattle in the herd. Therefore, if heifers are not pregnant at the end of the breeding season, they will likely not be able to cope with rebreeding as a 2-year-old when they are required to continue to grow and lactate. Additionally, heifers calving in the first 21 days of the breeding season are more likely to be retained in the herd and are more productive over their lifetimes.

The most important decision for a producer is to determine a specific strategy for heifer-development purposes. Two schools of thought regarding heifer development have emerged among beef cattle research scientists. One camp focuses on developing heifers to a target bodyweight, typically 65% of mature bodyweight, to achieve reproductive success. The other school of thought has focused on developing heifers to a lower target bodyweight, typically 50% to 55% of their mature bodyweight, to reduce development costs without impacting reproductive competence.

Recent research in Tennessee has indicated heifers can lose bodyweight prior to the breeding season while grazing low-quality, warm-season forages and have similar pregnancy rates as heifers developed grazing tall fescue. Increasing a heifer’s plane of nutrition during the breeding season is one of the most crucial aspects of heifer development and management. Ultimately, developing heifers to a lighter target bodyweight may provide more flexibility for management decisions while reducing development costs.

Recent research was conducted to estimate the amount of time it would require for heifers to pay back development costs in Tennessee. Heifers developed in pasture-based systems became profitable at 3 or 4 years old when compared with a payback period of 9 to 10 years old for drylot-developed heifers. Similar results indicating increased net returns for range-based heifer development have been reported from studies conducted across the western U.S.

Aside from the added expense of developing heifers in a drylot scenario, the “feed them to breed them” mentality does not allow for the flexibility of management and selling decisions. Some producers manage heifers similar to stocker cattle. In this way, producers have flexibility if a heifer is not bred at the end of the breeding season. She can be utilized in a stocker cattle enterprise if she is developed in a grazing system versus a confinement scenario. She can become overfed and fleshy in a drylot, losing that opportunity for an alternative marketing strategy.

Heifer development and management should be approached as a dynamic decision-making process. Cattle retained in the herd should be able to adapt to the rigors of your nutritional and managerial environment.

Heifers raised grazing in the environment they will live in the majority of their lives will stay in the herd at a greater rate. Many studies have illustrated that raising heifers in confinement and then turning them out to graze has reduced reproductive performance. Research from New Mexico State University has shown heifers raised in a drylot consuming a high-energy diet were retained in the herd at a significantly lower rate when compared to heifers developed grazing native rangeland.

Matching cattle to their production environment is crucial to improve longevity and reproductive efficiency. Overall, a flexible management style can keep producers in business even during years of drought or financial hardship. Allowing heifers to match their production environment through this flexible management style may be the best opportunity to improve reproductive and economic efficiency of the cow herd.  end mark

Zach McFarlane
  • Zach McFarlane

  • Beef Cattle Production Specialist
  • California Polytechnic State University – San Luis Obispo
  • Email Zach McFarlane

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