What do you do about replacement females when balancing carcass acceptability with cow adaptability?

This question can't be answered simply. It depends on many factors, most of which will be dependent on the goals, objectives and environmental conditions of the production system in which the cattle are raised. However, let's consider a few items that will assist in this decision process.

* Can cattle producers breed for acceptable carcass merit in progeny from their cows and produce their own replacement heifers?

It depends for which carcass trait you're selecting: A two-year study published in 1993 by Rick Rasby and co-workers at the University of Nebraska evaluated age of puberty in crossbred heifers sired by Angus bulls that were selected for either low or high marbling EPDs. No differences were found in the age of puberty in their daughters. This single study indicates that there doesn't appear to be a relationship between marbling and age at puberty.

On the other hand, research by Mike MacNeil at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center evaluated the effect selecting for carcass traits in steers had on reproduction in their heifer siblings. These data showed antagonisms between selection for increased muscle and growth and age at puberty in heifers.

Age at puberty is an important trait in replacement heifer development since it's closely tied to the ability of heifers to breed early in their first breeding season and is an indicator for subsequent fertility as a cow. The study found that improvements in feed/gain, carcass weights and leanness would increase the reproductive risk of heifers and may carry into cowherd fertility.

* Given the antagonisms between growth and muscle traits and reproduction, is purchasing replacements a viable option to balance herd goals?

This question can't be simply answered, but there are some valid items to consider that may cause a shift from traditional "raise your own replacement" thinking.

The trend in the beef industry has been going back to straightbred commercial cows as the answer to many of our problems, including the antagonisms we are dealing with in this article.

At the Range Beef Cow Symposium recently held in Greeley, CO, the University of Nebraska's Jim Gosey made the following comments about this fallacy: "I think the sacrifice we make if we leave hybrid vigor and heterosis on the table for a vast array of traits - reproduction and so on - is simply too great. We have to use it; we have to use it wisely, but we have to use it."

It's time to rethink whether each ranch can continue to operate as an island with regard to replacement females. It's time we take better advantage of some of the available technologies and look toward certain ranches specializing in maternal objectives while others focus more completely on terminal and carcass objectives. Then viable, mutually beneficial partnerships will form based on specifications, integrity and a unified mission.

Evaluating Raising Vs. Purchasing Several years ago, Don Nelson and Gayle Willett at Washington State University put together a bulletin to help producers analyze raising vs. purchasing replacement heifers (Bulletin EB1710, Cooperative Extension, Washington State University). I recommend this publication to anyone even remotely considering a change in approach to replacement females.

This publication outlines several advantages and disadvantages of purchasing and raising replacements, but key to this decision is economics. In Worksheet 1 I have used this bulletin to evaluate the economics of a present-day scenario. I have used cost values from cattle budgets typical of Eastern Colorado and prices that reflect current markets with conservative predictions for this point in the cattle price cycle. Other assumptions include:

* Inputs for raised heifers begin at weaning since the sale of the raised heifer calf at weaning represents an opportunity cost that must be included, even if the cost of producing the calf is lower than the sale value.

* The purchased heifer is about 22 months old and pregnant. The quality of the purchased heifer is equal to that of the raised heifer.

* Feed and pasture used to develop the raised replacement heifer from weaning to calving represents a reduced cost. However, in this example the potential use of that feed by cows that will produce a calf is not factored in. In the overall system, this aspect shouldn't be overlooked.

Worksheet 1 shows the positive economic effect of purchasing rather than raising heifers equals the income from the sale of weaned heifer calves, in this example, $459/head, plus $57.38 in saved interest over the 15-month development period. Elimination of costs associated with development from weaning to calving is also a positive effect, an additional $415.43, for a total positive effect of $931.80.

In this example, bred heifers were purchased at $750/head with an additional $25/head for trucking, etc. Using these costs, prices and assumptions, a positive net income of $156.80/head is estimated in favor of purchasing.

This represents a 16.7% rate of return on the purchase investment above investing in raising heifers. Since this exceeds the 10% return from alternate use of the capital, purchasing heifers is a profitable use of capital.

Worksheet 2 (page 36) allows a rancher to evaluate financial risk. Using the data from Worksheet 1, we can calculate breakeven prices and weaning weight changes for this scenario. In this example, weaned heifer calf price could drop to $.70/lb., or the bred heifer price could go up to $956.80 for the raise or purchase option to be equal to each other.

In other words, since the raised heifer will not wean a calf until a year after the purchased heifer and considering the time value of money, progeny from raised heifers would have to weigh an additional 58.9 lbs. at weaning each year to break even.

Also, don't forget that the feedstuffs the raised heifers consume could have been devoted to cows that would have weaned a calf and increased income.

Blank lines are shown in the table to allow producers to compute an analysis of their own operation. A copy of the complete bulletin is available from Washington State University or from myself at Colorado State University. In addition, a computerized version of the worksheets to compare these options is available at the CSU Animal Science home page at www.colostate.edu/Depts/AnimSci/Extension/index.htm.

When To Buy? One additional point must be considered in this decision - when to purchase the replacement female? As a calf, yearling, bred heifer or bred cow? A blanket recommendation is not appropriate, but two factors are involved:

* The reproductive risk is much greater with younger animals than with older animals. Re-breeding rates are generally lower in first-calf and second-calf heifers than in older cows. Risk of calving difficulty is greater in first-calf heifers. These risks are likely to be similar for calves whether they are raised or purchased.

* The manager's ability to profitably market open females. If open yearling heifers can be marketed profitably as feeder heifers, this may affect that decision. If marketing open females of any age poses more of a burden than an opportunity for the manager, then buying bred cows has an advantage because there will be fewer open animals.

The decision to raise or buy must go beyond economic considerations. Availability and location, reputation, genetic make-up, disposition, adaptation to a new environment, etc., must also be carefully considered.

What to do about replacement females when balancing carcass acceptability with cow adaptability can be simplified if quality replacement heifers can be purchased to facilitate terminal mating systems at the ranch. If the desired genetic partnership can be assembled, the maternal breed makeup of the cowherd will be easier to perpetuate to ensure heterosis in the cows and the calves.

Gosey also proposes opportunities to develop a "counter beef cycle" replacement female strategy. By this, he suggests that herds might breed to terminal sires during high calf price years.Then, all heifers could be sold or fed to capitalize, not only on high prices with higher weights, but by selling more calves since both steers and heifers would be marketed.

Conversely, during later phases of the beef cycle when prices are depressed, a herd would breed to maternal sires and keep all heifers. This would allow a producer to expose all heifer calves and keep only the ones bred first cycle as replacements while developing and marketing the later bred heifers at a premium.

This presents several challenges, such as how to handle the bull battery since this might mean selling all bulls in the battery and buying new bulls all at once. There would likely be larger swings in the number of cows in the cowherd than with traditional replacement programs where females are replaced each year, but it is possible that stocking rate fluctuations might be made up with yearling programs. An intriguing idea and food for thought.