Sometimes it seems the cattle industry is driven more by what's in style than what makes the most sense. If there's a long-range plan in place for the cow herd, and an established breeding program, why do so many folks jump every year on what's “hot” in sire selection?

As you review your long-range plan for heifer development, remember it will be your herd's foundation for the next 15 years or more. Single-trait selection never will be the model for developing replacement heifers.

The current industry trend is carcass traits. But should carcass take precedence over birth weight, calving ease, yearling weight, milk production or stayability? Many of these production variables make up the foundation on which today's cow herd is built. They're also what allow a producer to sleep at night knowing his cows will successfully produce and raise the calves that will make it to market.

To abandon such proven selection criteria to chase the latest fad may not allow the industry to continue its progress. While some folks may argue that not applying new information will leave the industry behind, more important is that any movement be in the right direction.

Industry profitability is still driven by the number of live calves marketed. Selection for traits that may compromise our ability to put live calves on the ground and raise them to weaning can also compromise our ability to survive as an industry.

Barry Dunn, director of Texas A&M University's King Ranch Institute for Range Management, recently postulated that the number of live calves weaned per number of cows exposed is the best measure of profitability for the ranch. Based on this methodology, producers still need to concentrate on the traits that help maintain a high percentage of live calves.

Key areas of heifer development

Tom Woodward of Broseco Ranches in Texas identifies three key areas of importance for a heifer development program.

  1. Good genetics

    The financial investment to develop heifers is significant. It takes at least 24 months from weaning until the retained heifer generates revenue. If you take the lost opportunity cost by not selling the heifer, and add the costs of a health program, breeding, maintenance and interest associated with her development, the total cost will exceed the initial value.

    A heifer's genetic ability to achieve all the required production criteria, while continuing to grow into a mature cow, requires she be well adapted to her environment. This may be one time the most valuable female in the herd is overlooked — the older cow.

    The industry's philosophy is to retain replacement heifers from the herd's younger females, as they possess the herd's most current genetics. But, older cows have survived all the environmental and management challenges of your operation, and continue to produce a live, viable calf each year.

    If stayability is a selection criterion, this cow surely meets it. She's likely calved and weaned a calf every year and bred back, with few calving problems. Otherwise, she'd be gone.

    These old girls have long been off the depreciation schedule and are just providing raw income. If we're looking to develop females from those adapted to our environment and management style, older cows should be considered some of the herd's more valuable genetics.

    It's hard to refute the basic economic argument on replacement heifers that “it's cheaper to buy them than raise them.” However, if your goal is to raise good replacement females that perform in your environment, and if a priority has been placed on the genetic base of the females being raised, it's tough to replace the genetic selection priorities established for the herd.

    Heifers can be purchased from an outside source but the management style and environment they come from had better be similar to, or tougher than, the environment they'll be required to produce in.

  2. Nutrition

    Many times, getting a heifer to target weight for breeding is a challenge. Research shows a heifer needs to attain 65% of her mature weight to begin to cycle and breed successfully. If the cow herd's average mature weight is 1,200 lbs., the heifer needs to weigh 775-800 lbs. to initiate regular reproductive cycles.

    Weigh the heifers at weaning. The beginning of the breeding season has already been established. To determine the weight needed — or the average daily gain required to attain breeding weight — subtract current weight from target weight to determine how many pounds the heifer needs to gain by the start of the breeding season.

    If you divide the gain needed by the number of days between weaning and breeding, you'll learn the lbs./day she must gain to hit the target breeding weight (TBW). Regarding TBW, it's easy to understand why early-born, heavier heifers at weaning are the heifers most likely to achieve it, compared to the late-born, lighter females in the calf crop.

    Next, formulate a ration to achieve the needed weight gain. Hopefully most of the required nutrition can be found in cheap forage or stockpiled feed, but it often requires supplemental energy or protein to maintain a rate of gain equivalent to about 1.5 lbs./head/day.

    Don't overdo supplemental feeding — it's expensive and heifers can get too fat. Always provide a good mineral with high availability of elements, and check routinely to ensure adequate consumption.

  3. Management

    Here, Woodward includes heifer selection, service sire selection, setting the breeding season and calving management.

Heifer selection is a multi-step process. At weaning, sort heifers by weight. Do a second sort by phenotype.

Consider keeping 10-15% more heifers than required. This allows for two more sorts, one just prior to the start of breeding season and a final sort of open heifers after breeding season.

Many producers like to breed heifers 15-30 days prior to breeding the cow herd. This allows more available time to manage heifer calving, and hopefully conclude it before the cow herd begins to calve. It also allows heifers 2-4 weeks more recovery than cows before the start of their second breeding season.

One drawback is it lengthens the time between heifer calving and the availability of grazing. Research indicates the closer heifers calve to available grass, the shorter the calving interval. If the plan is to maintain a yearly calving cycle, a cow must rebreed in an 80-day window to maintain the 365-day calving interval.

Moderation's the key

The key to sire selection for the commercial cow herd is moderation. Selecting sires with a good balance of traits, including carcass traits, is the best foundation. Selection for a specific trait for the calf crop can be added through the use of a terminal sire.

The cattle industry and current trends in the cattle industry are similar to a pendulum. It first takes a full swing to the right, then a full swing to the left, but a pendulum spends more time at the center of its swing than at either end.

Moderation will help keep a cow herd's genetics in the middle of the road. It's a plan that will allow the cow herd to adapt to current beef industry trends via responsible sire selection.

Dan Kniffen is Extension beef associate and assistant professor of animal science at Pennsylvania State University in University Park.