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As range conditions dry out and overall forage is compromised across the region, several producers are looking at weaning calves early, which means replacement heifer selection may be happening earlier than normal this year. 

As 2020 heads into its final stretch, cattle producers across the region look with dismay out across their land. Hot and dry conditions have parched much of the area’s rangeland, and as a result, many cattle producers are being forced to think about weaning early.

“The discussions that usually happen in October or November are happening now,” said Dr. Steve Paisley, University of Wyoming Extension beef specialist.

Paisley gave a virtual lecture on Sept. 10 as part of Montana State University Beef Cattle Extension’s fall seminar series. Paisley’s lecture, the first of the multi-week series, discussed in-depth replacement heifer selection and replacement heifer management.

Selecting replacement heifers is no small matter for beef producers. Paisley emphasized during his lecture when it comes to picking the herd’s next generation of producers, a good replacement heifer will become an ideal cow wherein she generates a positive cash flow and consistently produces a calf that is desirable for the market.

First and foremost, Paisley pointed out that fertility should be a big factor in the process of heifer selection. Fertility is actually one of the least heritable traits in cattle and it is very dependent on management and environment. To counteract some of these variables and to ensure that the herd produces more consistently overall, he recommends selecting heifer calves born early on in the calving cycle.

“One of the best things we can do is select heifers that are born early in the calving season. Those are probably coming out of our more fertile cows, cows more adapted to our environment and cows more likely to breed back early,” he explained.

Aside from fertility, Paisley points out that selection for structural elements is also very important when it comes to heifer selection. Any cowman’s hope is to select a heifer that will show longevity in the herd. To help reach that goal, select heifers with good udders, substance of bone, feet and other skeletal advantages.

That being said, Paisley cautions making heifer selections based solely on a heifer’s phenotype, especially if the selection process is happening when heifers are still so young. Phenotypic selections can be a part of the decision-making process, but maybe don’t just pick a heifer because she is pretty, now.

Continuing on, another good selection criteria for replacement heifers is temperament. More and more research is showing how a cow’s demeanor affects other aspects of her feed efficiency and ability to raise a calf. Again, if the goal is long-term retention in the herd, selecting calmer cattle early on is a good place to start.

“I think docility is going to continue to be important as we get fewer beef producers managing larger numbers of cattle. Cattle that work well are important, plus there is a lot of evidence that shows a calmer cow is going to breed back for us,” he added.

In his lecture, Paisley also touched on the economics behind heifer selection. Picking a heifer that is going to be profitable is tricky, and the fact cattle producers work with a free and ever changing market scenario can make it even more of a gamble. Ideally a heifer should be retained for cheap, but produce calves over a window when cattle prices are high.

Calf prices are cyclical and are a reflection of cattle inventory at the time. This means, when cattle inventory is low, calf prices generally are high, and reversely, when cow numbers are high, calf prices are most often low. The tendency is to retain more heifers when prices are high because it often makes more sense from a cash-flow perspective. On years when calf prices are high, however, a retained heifer has a higher opportunity cost and increased heifer retention leads to an increase in inventory, which ultimately drives the calf price down again.

“If you’ve got the ability and the flexibility to be counter-cyclical, that’s the idea,” he said.

Paisley will be the first to admit, being able to be counter-cyclical isn’t always possible and there are several variables that can play into the success of any decision.

Unfortunately, there may not be a clear-cut guide to replacement heifer selection, but using certain selection criteria and the use of other tools, like ultra-sounding for carcass data, may help producers make more consistent decisions.

In conclusion, Paisley says it ultimately boils down to what works best for the individualized producer. Pick out traits and characteristics that are beneficial to your own herd’s situation and try and make decisions that will continually advance the herd overall.