MILES CITY, Mont. – It is no secret that the largest cost endured by cattle producers is their yearly feed bill. It is also no secret that having cows who consistently bring a calf to market every fall is the long-term goal of any producer. For many years, the thinking has always been that in order to have a cow remain in the herd long-term a producer must ensure that heifers are handled with kid gloves and given everything they need from a nutritional and environmental standpoint so they can develop correctly.
Research coming out of Fort Keogh, a former U.S. Army base off the western edge of Miles City, Mont., is turning that line of thinking upside down. Dr. Andrew Roberts, a research scientist at Fort Keogh, is leading a study that is comparing heifers developed in a feedlot to heifers developed on range. The study began in 2012 and it stemmed from previous research where heifers were developed in a feedlot at two different levels.
“The feedlot study pretty much showed that the current recommendations in the industry are probably very excessive for heifer development,” Roberts stated.
Roberts went on to explain that recommendations published in popular press today are often based off of research on heifer development that was conducted in the 1960s through the 1980s. In the mid-part of the 20th century, heifers were never bred until they were two years old, they simply never reached puberty until then. At that time, there was a big push to try and get heifers to reach puberty quicker. Breed genetics where advancing, and at the same time, producers were pouring the coals to the heifers nutritionally.
“Those animals aren’t representative of what we are dealing with now,” he said.
With that in mind, Roberts and his research team decided to go back to the drawing board to try and find a more cost-effective way to develop heifers and to see if where they are developed has any correlation to cow longevity in the herd.
The ongoing research is being done on a composite herd that was developed at Fort Keogh. Heifers are 50 percent Red Angus, 25 percent Charolais and 25 percent Tarentaise. The heifers in the study have been divided into three groups: one group is weaned and developed in a traditional feedlot setting; one group is developed on range and given four pounds of cake as a supplement; and the final group is developed on range, but given free-choice access to a mineral and protein supplement. The range cattle are only fed hay when weather and range conditions made grazing not possible.
It is important to note, the range-developed heifers where fence-lined weaned in a pasture, so the entire development process was conducted in a setting similar to the one the heifers are expected to perform in as running-age cows.
Over the course of the study, more and more pressure has been applied to the range heifers. Not only are they being challenged for feed efficiency, but fertility, as well. When the study started, the heifers entered a 60-day breeding period, which has now been shortened to a period closer to 30-days. Even so, the heifers average 77-78 percent breed up rates, which is outstanding for first calf heifers.
Roberts’ study is showing that it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to make young heifers prove themselves. Allowing Mother Nature and natural selection to weed out the weaker heifers is not only more cost effective, but it may lead to better female retention.
“By having more pressure on their first pregnancy as a heifer, we are getting very good rebreeding rates, over 90 percent among our two- and three-year olds. When we did this in the feedlot study, pregnancy rates were closer to 80 percent for those same age groups,” Roberts stated.
In general, it is considered bad to have low pregnancy rates, but Roberts argues it really comes down to efficiency. Don’t waste money propping up the weak ones, he warned.
“If you have a group of cattle and you fed them more to get five percent more bred, then really that five percent is your least efficient bunch you are getting calves from and you will end up over feeding the rest of the group,” he says.
When it comes to heifers, Roberts advises producers to keep the long-term goal in mind: cow longevity. Challenging heifers early on in their development will toughen up your entire cattle herd down the line. There is a greater chance a producer will see better rebreeding rates and the cattle will stand a better chance of being productive for longer.
“You have to make progress in selecting animals that work in the nutritional environment you’re operating in,” Roberts added.
Roberts plans to continue his research and study the heifers more as they turn into cows. The first batch of heifers studied in 2012 will be turning eight-years-old this year, so Roberts looks forward to examining data from those cows as they continue to age.
Heifer development is critical, but if approached correctly, it doesn’t have to be a black hole for money. As the saying goes, “cream always rises to the top,” especially if given the chance to do so naturally.