Trey Patterson tries to be logical about the costs and returns of cow herd management. For example, as a Padlock Ranch manager, he knows developing heifers can be among an outfit's most expensive enterprises.

Conventional wisdom is that because it's relatively expensive to develop heifers into productive members of the herd, ranchers can reduce costs by maximizing heifer pregnancy rates. Patterson, Dayton, WY, doesn't necessarily buy into that logic.

“We've heard time and again about the importance of getting heifers bred at high rates,” Patterson says. The former South Dakota State University Extension beef specialist believes this practice can lead ranchers into a cycle of adding more and more costs to further boost pregnancy rates.

In fact, Patterson says a production-driven approach to developing heifers may negatively impact ranch profitability.

It's generally recommended heifers be developed to 60-65% of mature weight by the start of breeding season. But, Patterson says, many producers develop heifers to an average 70% of mature weight to ensure as many as possible reach the target range.

Patterson recognizes heifers developed to lower weights can have longer postpartum intervals. Research also shows a clear relationship between dietary energy levels during development and heifer pregnancy rates.

“Our point at Padlock Ranch is that the degree and timing of inputs into heifer development systems can have a big effect on net returns,” says CEO Wayne Fahsholtz, Ranchester, WY. “We think it's critical that heifer development be approached from an economic standpoint, not simply a production-based perspective.”

Show 'em the data

Armed with recent and ongoing research data showing heifer-development systems should be based on economic decisions, not just production-based outcomes, Patterson and Fahsholtz are combining two major concepts:

  • Developing heifers to a lower percentage of body weight.
  • Developing heifers on range.

“If heifers will breed at 50% of mature weight,” Patterson says, “we believe we can take advantage of available native range to develop heifers.”

First, they examined Rick Funston's data from Nebraska challenging the 65% of mature weight recommendations. In each of three years, 80 crossbred heifers were developed on meadow hay, wheat midds, cracked corn and a supplement pellet. Corn was adjusted so each group would reach the desired target of either 53% or 58% of mature body weight (low and high gain, respectively).

Heifer-pregnancy rates were not statistically different between treatments (92% and 88% for the low and high gain, respectively). In addition, there were no differences between treatments in pregnancy rates of these heifers with their second (average of 91%), third (93%) or fourth calves (96%).

Heifer-pregnancy rates weren't statistically different between treatments (92% and 88% for the low and high gain, respectively). There were no differences in heifer-pregnancy rates (87% and 90% for low and high gain, respectively). There were also no differences in pregnancy rates of these heifers with the second calf (average 91%).

Then they looked to University of Nebraska research led by K.W. Creighton, which compared 261 heifers under two heifer-development systems over three years. This included:

  1. Heifers developed to 50% of mature weight prior to breeding with a 60-day breeding period (low gain), or

  2. Heifers developed to 55% of mature weight with a 45-day breeding season (high gain).

The heifers were developed during the winter on meadow hay, protein supplement and whole corn. Corn was adjusted so heifers would reach desired target weights. Similar to that described above, there were no differences in heifer-pregnancy rates (87% and 90% for low and high gain, respectively). There were also no differences in pregnancy with the second calf (average 91%).

Evaluating the economics

As a follow-up to the performance data, other research evaluated the economics of these heifer-development systems. When averaged over an 11-year period, the low-gain treatment in Funston's study resulted in $27 less cost/bred heifer than the high-gain treatment (Table 1, page 54). In the Creighton research, the average cost of developing a heifer was $23 less for the low-gain than the high-gain animals.

“The low-input systems resulted in similar performance and lower costs than the systems that developed heifers to a higher percentage of body weight,” Patterson explains.

When they arbitrarily reduced yearling-pregnancy rates in their economic analysis, the cost of developing a heifer to 53% of mature weight at first pregnancy actually went down. The inputs into that system were low enough that over an 11-year period, there was a monetary gain to selling open heifers.

Another interesting aspect was the cost of a second-calf heifer. Using Creighton's 2004 data, the cost of developing a 2-year-old bred heifer actually went down, due to the price received for the first calf when averaged across 11 years.

“However, if pregnancy rates of the second breeding were arbitrarily reduced, then the cost of developing a second-calf heifer went up,” Patterson warns. “Therefore, pregnancy rate from the second breeding was important, as selling open 2-year-olds was not profitable.”

Other research at Colorado State University indicates the bred-heifer area may need more management attention. The data indicate that to achieve a 10% increase in 2-year-old pregnancy, a rancher could afford to pay $27/head before the first breeding (during replacement-heifer development) or $57 after she was bred (as a bred heifer).

“Do you think you would be more likely to increase 2-year-old pregnancy by spending $27 prior to first breeding, or $57 on the bred heifer?” Patterson asks. “This tells us we have more leverage to influence production, without increasing costs, with the bred heifer than the replacement.”

Back at the ranch

In October 2003, the Padlock fence-line weaned 402 heifers weighing 439 lbs. on native range. A wheat midds-based, 18% crude protein (CP) range cube was fed for 30 days at a rate of 3 lbs./day. The heifers were then fed a range block (30% CP) at a rate of 2 lbs./day for the remainder of the winter. No hay was fed all winter. Total feed costs were less than 25¢/head/day.

“There was very little sickness in the calves,” Fahsholtz says. “We doctored only 13 heifers.”

Before the Padlock could gain any pregnancy data, however, drought hit. When Fahsholtz had to sell the heifers in June 2004, they weighed about 724 lbs., putting their gain at more than 1 lb./day since weaning. About 1,200 heifers will be developed this winter using native range and hay-crop aftermath.

Having learned development costs can be reduced, Patterson and Fahsholtz believe bred heifers can be developed to return a profit to the operation sooner, or they can sell open heifers off grass for a profit in many years. Fahsholtz adds, “It's our intent to reduce our cow costs by lengthening the grazing season for all our cows.”

By exposing their heifers for a short period of time, they'll naturally select heifers that should be productive, low-cost cows through their lifetime.

“We know we'll probably have a lower conception rate initially,” Fahsholtz says. “But, our membership in Country Natural Beef gives an excellent market for our open heifers.”

“We know we'll see years when we'll need to feed more hay when winter grass is not available,” Patterson interjects.

“There also could be situations where grass is worth enough to make it cheaper to feed the heifers than graze them,” Fahsholtz adds. “But ranchers need to make those cost calculations for themselves.”

Selling open heifers can be a paying proposition if development costs are low. “But there will be some years when open-heifer prices are low compared to feed costs, and it may not be profitable to sell opens,” Patterson notes. “Having the yearlings on grass gives some management alternatives during drought as well.”

Other considerations

There are considerations to weigh in developing heifers to less than 60% of mature weight at breeding. There's likely more risk of lower pregnancy rates with decreasing levels of development.

“That may not be a big problem if you have enough heifers to keep replacements,” Patterson explains. In other words, if selling open heifers doesn't cost you money, your risk is in generating enough replacements to keep your herd at the desired size. This can be managed by keeping more heifers than you need for replacements.

Fahsholtz notes the Padlock Ranch has a contingency plan if heifers don't gain as expected. “We're monitoring the performance of these heifers and will adjust the program if necessary,” he says.

A second concern is calving difficulty in lighter heifers. Some research shows heifers developed to a lower percentage of mature weight experience more dystocia than heifers developed to 65% of mature weight.

“If birth weights are not too high, and proper bulls are selected for breeding heifers, you likely can manage this,” Patterson notes. Padlock heifers are bred to Wagyu bulls, which gives them a special market for the calves while minimizing calving problems.

Another consideration is heterosis.

“Crossbred heifers can reach puberty and breed if developed at 55% of mature weight at breeding, but it isn't clear if purebred heifers would respond the same way,” Patterson adds.

Developing heifers lighter at breeding may also result in cows smaller at maturity. But Patterson says this could be positive in reducing cow maintenance requirements.

“Range development systems may offer a low-cost way to develop heifers for some operators,” he advises. “There's significant management leverage in the young cow.”

Table 1. Total development costs from weaning to pregnancy of low- and high-gain, heifer-development systems (across two studies) averaged using cattle and commodity prices from 1992-2002a.
Heifer Development Study
Funston and Deutscher, 2003b Creighton, 2004c
Low-Gain $608 $580
High-Gain $635 $603
aData are average costs of developing heifers over 11 years of prices for cattle and inputs; quantities of feed and other inputs held constant for each of the two studies, which were three years each.
bStudy included 240 heifer calves across three years. Low-gain heifers at 53% of mature weight at breeding and had a 92% pregnancy rate in 45 days; High-gain heifers were at 57% of mature weight at breeding and had an 88% pregnancy in 45 days.
cStudy included 261 heifer calves across three years. Low-gain heifers developed to 50% of mature weight at breeding and had a pregnancy rate of 87.2% in a 60-day breeding season; High-gain heifers developed to 55% of mature weight and had a pregnancy rage of 89.2% in a 45-day breeding season.
Source: Proceedings Range Beef Cow Symposium XIX