What’s the best strategy to use when selecting replacements? Record setting prices for cattle and calves combined with lower feed costs certainly have sparked a renewed sense of optimism among cow/calf producers.
Among the major changes that separate current conditions from previous years is the increased market value of breeding stock. It’s not uncommon in the Northern Plains for bred heifers or young cows to exceed $2000 in value, sometimes by several hundred dollars. As the increased inventory values increase, so do the losses incurred when cows are culled too soon because of reproductive failure. This year’s bred heifer that fails to re-breed and is sold represents a decrease of $1000 to $1500 on a ranch’s balance sheet; fifteen years ago there wouldn’t have been as great a loss if she had simply died.
At the same time there has been a much greater emphasis on end product quality and performance past the ranch gate. Since 2005 the percentage of cattle marketed on some sort of carcass merit basis has increased from a little less than 50% to almost 75%. The market value differences between calves that can excel in these kinds of systems and those that cannot will continue to widen.
Given these conditions, how should ranchers approach heifer selection to best position themselves for the next three to five years? Producers should recognize where genetic selection and performance testing can have the most impact. The decision of which bull to buy (or not buy) could directly affect 100 calves or more over his lifetime; it would be very rare for a commercial cow to have more than 8 to 10 calves. That isn’t to say that the genetics for production traits in the cow aren’t important, just that disciplined selection on the sire side will have a much greater impact on a calf crop than whether or not one or two particular heifers are kept or culled.
Female selection plays a much greater role in terms of reproductive success and environmental “fit”. One very simple but effective tool would be to select replacement heifers from those born early in the calving season. Those heifers would be older at the start of breeding and should be more likely to be bred earlier. Production records from USDA research at Clay Center and SPA data from South Dakota have shown that first-calf heifers that calve early tend to remain in the herd longer than their later calving counterparts. Putting pressure on heifers to conceive early by utilizing short breeding seasons and keeping the early born heifers should help improve cow longevity.
Those same management practices can also improve performance through the feedyard and on the rail. In the Tri-County Steer Carcass Futurity in Iowa, steers that were born early produced heavier carcasses with higher quality grades under the same management compared to their later-born herd mates. Having more calves born early in the season also will reduce the variability in the calf crop which will simplify the marketing of calves or feeder cattle.
Other factors to consider:
- There are DNA tests available that can provide additional insight into the genetic potential of commercial replacements. Presently those tests are limited to certain genetics and only for feedlot and carcass traits. These could be very useful for producers that are targeting premiums for producing higher grading cattle.
- Structural soundness, disposition, udder quality, etc., are important factors in cow longevity and in reducing labor requirements. Technology and science can’t completely replace old-fashioned “cow sense.”