The price of admission into the beef industry today is pretty prohibitive, says Rick Funston. But the University of Nebraska beef cattle reproductive physiologist believes one answer may reside in the heifer enterprise, which he says is “heavily underutilized and under-valued.”

Funston says producers should think about developing heifers, rather than selling them at weaning. “Rather than take a significant discount on a heifer at weaning, there is the potential of making a larger profit by growing that heifer,” he says.

Thanks to new concepts in developing replacement heifers at a low-input cost of production, Funston says heifers can be developed at a low cost, and bred early during the breeding season. Any open heifers can be sold at a premium in the fall as yearlings.

“Many times, those open yearling heifers can be worth just as much as a bred heifer in the fall,” he says. “The price between a heifer and a steer at slaughter is at a premium for a heifer on a grid because the heifer will grade better,” he adds. “There is the potential to make additional profit by feeding those open heifers.”

Traditionally, producers have been told heifers need to be at least two-thirds of their mature weight at breeding. However, Funston says research shows heifers at 50-55% of their mature weight can conceive if they are on an increasing plane of nutrition at breeding.

“Do the math,” Funston says. “At 60% of mature weight at breeding, starting with a 500-lb. weaned heifer calf, which isn’t large by today’s standards, we have a lot of time to get them to the target weight. A heifer rarely needs to gain more than 1½ lbs./day. You don’t have to push feed to them to get them bred.”

What most interested Funston was how the management imposed on these developing heifers influenced their longevity in the herd. He says data generated at USDA’s Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, NE, found that heifers more challenged during their development tended to have longer longevity in the herd.

“If you expose the heifers to whatever they will have to live on as a cow as early as possible, it will make them a better cow. What they are fed during their development is important to their longevity in the herd,” he explains.