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Getting the Most From Your Heifers

Posted Mar. 31, 2008

Many livestock producers reduced cow numbers in 2006 because of the drought and were hesitant to restock early in 2007. The abundant rainfall last summer, however, cleansed memories and renewed optimism, and we began to add back numbers later in the year in the form of heifers. Bred heifers are calving as this article is being written, and we'll breed them right along with the cow herd for their second calf. Yearling heifers, however, are getting ready to meet the bulls for the first time. Here are a few things to remember about heifers and some suggestions on getting the most from this class of livestock.

The primary factor affecting a cow herd's profitability is reproductive efficiency. We usually select heifers based on phenotype, physical soundness and whether they can reach 70 to 75 percent of their mature weight by the start of the breeding season. We rarely have information beforehand to evaluate their genetic potential for reproduction. For that reason, I am a firm believer in forcing virgin heifers to express their fertility by limiting the first breeding to 45 days. Those that conceive under this initial pressure have the best chance of being productive cows in my herd.

Another standard practice is to breed these yearling heifers for their first calf 30 days before the mature cow herd's breeding season. When they calve for the first time next spring, they will still have some growing to do in addition to producing milk and getting their bodies ready to conceive again. These heifers are usually the hardest class of female to rebreed for their next calf. This 30-day cushion is a common way to give them maximum opportunity to be ready to breed right along with the main cow herd for their second calf.

Finally, I want to revisit a summary report by Shan Ingram regarding almost a decade's worth of data comparing first-calf heifer and mature cow production at the Noble Research Institute's Pasture Demonstration Farm. The bottom line is that a producer doesn't have to concede lighter, lower-performing calves from first-calf heifers. In fact, Ingram's management consistently generated calves from first-calf heifers that outweighed those of the mature cows over the eight-year period reported. Ingram attributed this to two things. First, he bred the heifers 30 days before the mature cows, so their calves were a month older at weaning. Second, as in any program measuring performance and using sound selection principles, the replacement heifers from Ingram's project were genetically superior to the cows they were replacing.

Raising replacement heifers is a rewarding part of a cow/calf enterprise. With appropriate management, heifers can enhance profitability and production.