Developing heifers

Developing heifers can be costly and time consuming, and making those decisions can be challenging for a cow-calf producer.

Choosing and developing replacement heifers can be a challenge for even the most seasoned cow-calf producer.

Those decisions need to be made as soon as possible, says Erika Lundy, Iowa State University Extension beef specialist in Greenfield. Making replacement selections early should result in more efficient management.

“A general target for developing heifers average daily gain is 1.5 to 2.0 pounds per day from weaning until breeding,” she says. “Fortunately, backgrounding diets typically are targeting a similar ADG, so there may be an option to prolong making that selection decision for a few extra months.”

For example, Lundy says drought conditions have kept many producers from a third hay cutting. Lack of feed, she says, may necessitate moving extra heifers to the feedlot.

Producers also need to establish goals before selecting replacements, says George Perry, Extension beef specialist with Texas A&M University in Overton. Perry previously worked in a similar position with South Dakota State University.

He says factors such as age at puberty, genetics and efficiency are usually key items in that decision-making process.

“Remember that it usually takes four to six calves to break even on the costs that go into developing that heifer,” Perry says. “You need to select heifers that are going to be part of your herd for a long time. Those selections represent the future of your operation.”

Some producers may elect to have someone else develop heifers for them. Lundy says while doing this is a viable option, there are things to consider.

“It depends on several factors including your set-up, available feed resources, labor, etc., but in general, there are a lot of benefits to having heifers developed, especially since several places focus and specialize on heifer development.

“Therefore, they can typically develop and breed heifers more efficiently and economically than what a producer can do on-farm because of the benefit of economies of scale. On the flip side, biosecurity risk increases when bringing those heifers back home. And of course, some management is out of your control while on someone else’s farm.”

Many operations have a predetermined percentage of heifers that will be retained each year, and Perry says that figure is usually 20 percent. Lundy says producers need to take their time before deciding which cows to cull.

“Use the information that is available to you. Utilize dam production data to help you determine which females work best in your environment, and your management scheme,” she says.

“Also, look at individual animal data (birth weight, notes taking throughout her lifetime, and weaning weights). Heifers born earlier in the calving season are more likely to calve earlier in the breeding season than their counterparts born late. Don’t overlook structural soundness and disposition. If you don’t keep records, now is a great time to start.”

If producers are looking to expand with no culling, Lundy says the process is different.

“Your selection may be a little more relaxed to keep back more heifers, but the same principles should apply here., she says. “However, make sure you don’t get too relaxed and end up developing heifers that won’t make it, or you don’t plan for them to make it to 6 years of age when they will hopefully pay for themselves and start generating a profit for you.”

Developing heifers will have different nutritional needs than mature cows.

“A growing heifer still has a requirement higher than gestation cow and therefore, will need more groceries,” Lundy says.

“For this reason, it’s better to develop replacement heifers separate from mature females so we are better matching the requirements of both age groups and not creating competition for feed resources. Heifers can be successfully developed in a drylot situation or in a field, but management, including nutrition, is important.”

Jeff DeYoung is livestock editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.