Cows for the Future? Heifer Retention

— Written By and last updated by JoAnne Gryder
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       With most cow-calf producers weaning their fall calves, one question that always comes up is how many heifers should I keep as replacements? The first question I ask a farmer in this discussion is what are your farm goals? Trying to keep a specific number of cows on your farm takes planning out 2-3 years in the future. It also means having to make a decision on how many heifers you need to bring into the herd each year.

        Regardless of your farm goals and how pinched you are for cow numbers, you need to start by having a minimum selection process to only keep heifers back that have a fighting chance of making a decent brood cow one day. The reason for this process is that retaining a heifer at weaning (and thus not marketing her per your normal channels) with the goal of breeding her is an expensive undertaking. If she does not breed initially, or does not have the physical capacity to breed back after her first calf, you will lose money on her. How much money varies from farm to farm, but for most operations any red in the ledger sheet is too much.

        After sorting through the ones that are good enough to consider Space_cowkeeping, how many do I need to keep? One of the most frustrating aspects of being in the cow-calf business is the time and attrition involved in taking a young heifer and then making her into a good cow that will hopefully be in your herd for years to come. Similar to the process that the military uses in training elite soldiers, you’re not going to end up with the same number you start with. The old rule of thumb says that if you want 10 good cows in your pasture in a couple of years, you need to start off with at least 12-13 heifers.

Where will you lose these heifers along the way?

  1. Post weaning. This normally will not be a major area of loss, but if you keep a heifer that is right on the border for your selection criteria and she continues to fall further behind the group, you would be better off to take the loss up front and cull her now.
  2. At her initial breeding. This is where you will take a pretty big loss on your heifers. Not all of them will breed. You can have a first-rate nutrition process, a good herd-health program, and do everything right the whole way through, but not all of them are going to get pregnant. Most farms will factor in 85%-90% on first breeding rates. This is just a reality of the cattle business. One word of caution in this area, unless there were outside factors involved (bull sterility, a disease/ nutrition issue that affected fertility, etc.) do not keep an open heifer back in the hopes she will breed the next year. This is throwing good money after bad in the worst way. She is as fertile as she will ever be in her life at this stage, if she did not breed now, cut your loss and move on.
  3. At calving. You are probably going to have some issues with a group of virgin heifers when it comes time for them to calve. It is not unheard of for mother nature to go horribly wrong the first time she goes to calve and you end up losing her. Even if a major dystocia case does not involve death, it very often will result in her being open the next year.
  4. At weaning time. This is where most two-year-old cows will be given the benefit of the doubt. Heifers do not milk as well as a mature cow. Therefore, their calves will typically be on the bottom end of the calf crop. This is a pretty normal occurrence. What is not forgivable is a first-calf heifer raising a calf that is way behind the herd average. These are the calves that look like they’ve never had a decent meal in their life. If a heifer performs this bad on her first calf, face reality and cull her. She will not improve that much with the next calf.
  5. Not breeding back as a two-year-old. This is the last major hurdle that a young cow will face. Heifers have a nasty and expensive habit of not breeding back the year after their first calf. The reason is they go from their most fertile part of their lives (as a 15 month old) to their most infertile (2 year old). First-calf heifers are still growing, they are raising a calf, plus they are expected to start cycling again to re-breed. Not every cow can do this. This results in some open two year olds.

What do you do with these open cows? Most cattle farmers will tell you there is no decision to make, they get culled. Other farmers will argue that for the expense involved in getting them to this point, it is the lesser of two evils to consider keeping her around for the next year than restarting another 8 month-old heifer to replace her. I see both sides of the argument, and both have a point.

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