Selecting Replacement Heifers

Published on Fri, 09/28/2018 - 12:45pm

 Selecting Replacement Heifers

 By Michael Cox for American Cattlemen Magazine

Replacement heifers are the lifeblood of any cow-calf business as they have a direct influence on the quality and quantity of future calves sold for many years to come. Producers should be clear on their individual criteria involved in selecting which young females to bring into the breeding program, why those animals are chosen and what the desired end-product offspring will look like. American Cattlemen Magazine recently caught up with two cattlemen, Jordan Rhodes, based out of Faulkton, South Dakota and Joel Judge of Advanced Beef Solutions, Texas, to discuss their thoughts on selecting replacement heifers.

Maternal Selection
Rhodes is a first-generation farmer, who after years of AI industry work with Holstein dairy cows in Minnesota, decided to return to his true passion and love; beef cows in South Dakota. From a standing start of a small herd of cows, Rhodes has grown the business to 150 head of Red Angus females, with plans to double in business size in the coming years. “The focus here is to breed good, honest cows and we select heavily for maternal traits within the herd,” Rhodes says. Having a herd of proven, predictable maternal cows with a good calving interval is key to success for this red angus herd. “A cow herd is like a factory in my eyes, and we need new youngstock coming down the pipeline as better replacements for older, less efficient cows,” Rhodes says. For the production line to run smoothly, heifers are selected based on breed character, easy fleshing ability, functionality, udders and feet. Excellent records are kept to detail parentage, production and any health or functional problems within the herd. All replacement heifers are sourced from within the closed herd, and to a large degree, the female youngstock are all potential replacement candidates due to the quality of the base cow. A tight breeding season of just 35 days of 100% AI ensures that AI bred daughters are only kept from high fertility, efficient cows. “We don’t cull a lot of youngstock, as we don’t have a lot that fall off the edge,” Rhodes says, with the occasional heifer being culled due to poor mothering or poor udder structure in her dam.

Terminal Distractions
The maternal focus is a cornerstone of the business and something Rhodes is passionate about. “We try to breed for balance, not just for growth and a curve-bender bull calf under a cow,” Rhodes says. He believes that as the US cow herd is getting younger every year, the industry may be losing efficiency and a good maternal base cow in the longterm, as producers focus only on growth, muscle and terminal traits. “We’re giving up too much on the female side when we focus on terminal traits and end up with large, inefficient, poor fertility and short-lived breeding cows as a result,” Rhodes says. Rhodes believes that maternal selection does not have to compromise bull sales, as good bulls are a by-product of a strong maternal line. Breeding bulls from the herd start at $9,000, with many repeat customers returning every year. “Selecting the right heifers with a clear breeding strategy will create a herd that cashflows consistently, even in a downmarket,” Rhodes says.

Selecting for an end-goal
For Joel Judge, replacement heifer selection is an integral part of his marketing and consulting business. Judge sources replacement stock for customers across the nation and has built up a network of excellent source herds over his 35 years in the industry. “The first question I ask someone who is looking to buy replacement heifers is ‘What is their goal?’ Are they wanting to retain ownership to the rail, sell at weaning, sell pairs, what is the environment like where the animals will travel to ect.,” Judge says. Having the end-goal in mind is crucial to selecting the right type of animal. Once this has been established, the next criteria for selection is breed type, feet and legs, soundness and body type. “Heifers need to look feminine in my opinion,” Judge says, and he pays particular attention to shoulders and center belly rib dimension when choosing replacement females. Uniformity of the group and purchasing from a dependable source herd is also important. “We stay away from ‘put-together’ herds and prefer to see the mothers of potential replacements and observe and study their background,” Judge says. Provided heifers meet the above requirements, Judge will then ensure that the heifers have every possible chance of success on the new owner’s ranch. Vaccination programs, mineral supplementation programs and proper preconditioning of the heifers will all be considered to help set the heifers up to thrive with their new owner. “It’s also important when selecting heifers to try and relax and acclimatize them to their new home as quickly as possible,” Judge says. If possible, stock should be sourced in the Fall so they avoid any humidity stress if moving across the country. Having a few older cows to mix with the new replacements is also beneficial claims Judge, as the experienced cows will help train the heifers into learning what, where and when to eat on the new ranch. “Cattle can adapt to moving anywhere in the country,” Judge says, “but it can take time for cattle to learn to eat fescue, warm season grasses or cool season grasses, depending on where the original source herd was based in relation to the buyer’s farm.

While replacement heifer selection criteria will differ from farm to farm, success can be achieved if producers are clear on their desired characteristics and stick to a breeding strategy for several years. For Rhodes and Judge, the time invested in selecting the right type of replacement animal is clearly paying dividends and is helping their businesses and livestock prosper.