For producers in drought country, it may take new lower-cost approaches to get first-calf females bred and bred back. A switch in calving seasons may be warranted, but skimping on vaccinations and other animal health programs shouldn't become part of the routine.

That's the conclusion of Manny Encinias, New Mexico State University Extension livestock specialist, and a cooperator rancher he works with, Casey Murdock of Felt, OK. Encinias crosses the state line to carry Extension programs to producers in the remote parts of the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles. And Murdock is among those struggling against near-continuous drought, not to mention today's other production and marketing obstacles.

Murdock runs about 150 continental and English-cross cows bred to Angus bulls. All replacements are selected from his calf crop. “I want to know the genetics of my replacement heifers. When you save your own, you know pretty much what you have,” he says, noting that holding heifers and not selling them means there had better be payback through a calf at age two.

He holds back as many heifers as needed to replace open cows. “With 150 cows, the goal is to save about 20 heifers; 75% of those saved actually make it through my culling criteria and calve out,” Murdock says.

Calving is synchronized to grass green-up, so it begins in late February, just ahead of the rainy season, if there is one.

“When you ranch in more droughty country, the closer you calve to green grass, the better you'll be as far as cutting cow and heifer development costs,” says Encinias, adding that Murdock's type of cattle fit into the program.

“He's not chasing faddish trends,” Encinias says. “The majority of his cows are black-hided but aren't predominately Angus.” The genetic base of his cowherd is Gelbvieh. In recent years he's used Maine-composite bulls and this year is using purebred Angus bulls.

“Like most commercial producers, Casey's found the crossbred female provides added longevity, fertility and weaning weights compared to the purebred cow,” Encinias says.

Early to bred

Heifers are bred ASAP as yearlings, and first-calf heifers are run with the mature cows. A lot of people like to keep heifers separate from cows, Encinias says, “but that doesn't always shape out in the real world when the grass is short. These heifers have to earn their keep amongst the mature cows.”

All heifers are preg tested. He counts on them to breed up early in the season. And all receive a strict vaccination and mineral program.

“An effective vaccination protocol for replacement heifers includes strategically timed vaccinations, pre-weaning, post-weaning and 4-6 weeks prior to the start of the breeding season,” Encinias says. “Furthermore, the use of quality modified-live vaccines (MLV) is strongly recommended.”

Consulting annually with his local veterinarian, Murdock uses a standard MLV and a seven-way vaccine. “If you try to cheat in those types of animal health programs you'll pay for it down the road,” he says. “I vaccinate cows and heifers at preg test. They also receive a scours shot.”

As with vaccines, trace minerals aren't skimped on. Encinias points out that “you often don't see the effects of a trace mineral or vaccination program until you need it, like during a drought. Their added benefit can make all the difference.”

Calves also receive an MLV and seven-way vaccine program and are backgrounded for about 30 days. That helps get them through the worst of pneumonia threats that can occur during drought.

Encinias says developing replacement heifers is historically among the most expensive tasks of a cow-calf operation. “Exact figures vary by ranch, but managers realize it may require several productive years of weaning a live calf to pay for the development costs incurred during the first two years of life,” he says.

The nutritional factor

A significant portion of the cost associated with developing heifers is nutritional, as numerous studies have tied reproductive success to nutritional status.

Traditional nutrition programs for heifers were developed on the basis of a positive association between critical body weights and pregnancy rates. But numerous researchers have challenged those guidelines in an effort to define more cost-effective ways to develop heifers. The results of new studies are particularly timely, given today's higher fuel and feed costs.

Next Page: Dealing with drought

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“Producers should work to accurately identify cost centers to trim expenses where possible, obtain more response from each dollar spent, and/or make system changes,” Encinias says.

“Altering rate and time of post-weaning gain as well as growing heifers to lighter than traditional critical body weights are two cost-effective means of trimming feed costs in the post-weaning period for heifers (for the Southwest and other areas that face dry conditions).

“Today, the most comprehensive data suggest age rather than weight at the beginning of the breeding season is the requisite for a successful pregnancy in yearling heifers.”

Multiple studies have been carried out to grow crossbred heifers below 60%, and as low as 50%, of their mature body weight and measure reproductive performance. In these studies, no negative impacts have been reported on yearling pregnancy rates or subsequent rebreeding performance as two- and three-year-olds.

Encinias says the key to reproductive success in nutrition programs that delay post-weaning gain is to keep heifers on an increased plane of nutrition through the breeding season. That's because higher incidences of embryonic mortality attributed to nutrient restriction are observed in the first trimester.

“The only drawback of growing heifers to lighter body weights as yearlings is younger and lighter heifers may require additional service days to conceive,” he says. He adds the studies pertaining to growing heifers to lighter critical body weights were conducted with crossbred heifers, similar to those run by Murdock.

“These recommendations haven't been reported for purebred heifers in the literature, but it can be assumed from older literature that critical body weight (percent of mature body weight) to achieve similar results may vary within and among breeds.”

Dealing with drought

Encinias suggests bred heifers can undergo periods of severe energy restriction through the third trimester without experiencing premature loss of the fetus. “However, it's important to allow sufficient time for bred heifers to recoup body condition loss prior to calving to avoid complications at calving and reduce subsequent calf, lactation and rebreeding performance,” he says.

“Also, minimizing unnecessary energy substitution to bred heifers grazing native rangelands in the Southwest is an additional option to reduce costs associated with developing heifers.”

Murdock's program of calving “when the grass is turning green” helps save on supplemental feed in heifer development. “A thorough evaluation of low-cost heifer development can't be completed without discussing options to reduce supplementation costs by changing the time of the breeding season and subsequent calving season,” Encinias says.

“The nutritive value of most native warm-season grasses in the Southwest during the summer growing season can adequately meet or exceed nutrient requirements for growth in developing heifers. This can positively impact reproductive performance, and supplementation needs can be greatly reduced.”

He stresses that while supplementation costs may be reduced by more closely matching heifer nutrient requirements with nutritional quality of available native forage, “it's important to thoroughly evaluate the overall changes to the operations relative to the calving season and the effects of marketing calves.”

Murdock says his calves have traditionally been marketed as 500- to 600-lb. stockers. “But the market was so poor in 2008 I ran them on wheat and sold them later on,” he says.

Murdock has found that weaning his calves early, getting them straightened out, and either selling them to go on wheat or turning them out on his own wheat and selling late winter or early spring may aid his effort to trim costs on his operation.

Larry Stalcup is a freelancer based in Amarillo, TX.