Last time I wrote about a conversation I had with David Hall about recognizing the cost of raising a heifer calf. She will have to throw her fourth calf at age 6 to pay for her own development. This is no small feat as heifers are still growing themselves and gaining molars…without which, it’s hard to fully chew their cud. That first calf is hard on a heifer as she has to provide milk for a growing calf while retaining/regaining condition so she cycles in time for her next pregnancy within a defined breeding window. Without those molars, she faces an up-hill battle. Now, I have heard Kit Pharo toss this around a little bit suggesting if we’re ever going to forgive a cow for coming up open it’s when she’s due for a second calf…but he hasn’t done that in practice, he just suggested it might pencil out.
That math makes sense but why bother raising heifers when I can buy bred heifers? Either way somebody has to pay those heifer development costs but maybe I can save myself some labor if I can find replacement heifers of the same quality. While it is possible to buy in heifers a little cheaper than I can raise them, it’s a little bit of a gamble genetically. David said, “If my own herd genetics are good enough I can afford to spend more on my own heifers than taking a chance on new genetics.”
So, what is it we’re looking for when we are shopping for a long-lasting heifer? Well, here are the herd requirements David listed on his first slide in the presentation:
- Fit the environment (Adaptable)
- Calving Ease
- Low Maintenance Requirements
David started his presentation in February by showing a table of relative values comparing a business based on yearling sales to a feedlot. According to the chart (which I believe was cited to a research company and I’m unwilling to republish), reproduction is 10x more important than carcass quality for yearling sales. If you are in the business of selling calves, you have to have calves to sell. The detail below should help us find stock that will work for us, delivering and weaning a calf year after year but keep in mind, fertility is the top priority. So let’s look at the criteria in detail, though I think you’ll find the details overlap considerably.
“Be sure to breed to bulls who have a proven record on fescue. Get a bull that is well adapted to your environment.” If I have 25 cows and one bull, that bull makes up half of the genetic makeup of the next generation. Picking the right bull matters and the consequences of a poor choice will impact the operation for years to come. For example, I want a bull that is slick-haired as the shaggy cows (Ms. White) don’t perform as well as the slick cows (#111) on hot days in July. Even better were the Jerseys who got slick in April or May in spite of cool weather and continue grazing when the heat index is above 100. I feel that it is important to select within my herd for shorthorn genetics that are still out working alongside of the Jerseys. Those Jerseys are the benchmark. I have a couple of cows I can usually count on to be out there working on a hot day so I’ll tend to favor their offspring in the coming years.
“Cull out ornery cows and bulls.” As an inexperienced cow owner (I’m not a cattleman. I’m a cow owner. Maybe in a few years I’ll graduate.), it is easy to confuse ornery and nervous. There is a difference between the cow that wants to eat you and the cow that is afraid of you. Ms. White was terribly skittish when she first arrived and when she saw us it was time to run…and all the cows went with her…right through the fence. I thought we were going to have to invite her to leave. But, after a little while, with a few changes on our part, she fell into the routine. She hadn’t been in as close proximity to humans as she necessarily is on a daily basis with our daily grazing moves. She has to walk right past me every day now and is doing fine. That said, she does tend toward excitement and we want cows that tend toward calm. Hopefully she’ll give us steer calves each year. Looking at cows as employees David says, “if the employee has a bad attitude she needs to be fired.”
If I pick a bull that throws heavy birth weight calves, I’m breeding heavy birth weight into my herd. I don’t want to spend my spring camping out with the herd and pulling calves. I want to sleep in my soft, comfy bed, get up early and head out to the pasture with a camera to take a picture of the new, live calf on the ground…a calf that was born without any interference from me. If I am selecting for cows that bring a live calf in for weaning each year I have to be careful to do my part by stacking the deck in their favor.
We need a heifer that cycles three times before we introduce the bull at 15-16 months. We need her to settle, not just the first time but also (and more importantly) on her second pregnancy. Finally, we need her to continue to get pregnant every year, on time and bring a live calf in at weaning. “View your cows as employees. That cow’s job is to put on weight and bring in a healthy calf. Any employee that doesn’t work gets fired. No calf? Fired.”
David says he breeds in the fall (more on that another time) from December 1 – January 15th. “A short, defined breeding season will push [the herd] forward faster than anything you can do.” However, a bred cow is worth more than an open cow so he DOES leave the bull in after January 15th. “Leave the bull in to breed cows that are late BUT sell any cow that did not breed in 45 days.”
Finally, he points out that “there is a strong relationship between age of puberty and longevity.” Cows that are late to mature don’t tend to last in the herd.
As we looked at last time, “Cows must be 6 years old and rear 4 calves to pay for her development costs. Optimal economic return is in years 8-11 for commercial cow/calf operations.” So a 6 year-old cow has broken even. I need more than 4 calves out of her to make money. If she misses throwing a calf within a defined window she gets fired. If her attitude is poor she gets fired. If I have to pull a calf, she probably gets fired. The odds are against 90% of the cattle in North America but without this culling we’ll go broke pampering our tea cup cattle and servicing the equipment required to pamper them. That means a short, slick 14 year old cow with a good attitude has thrown 12 calves, year after year eating whatever there is to eat on my farm, with a little bite of salt and mineral. Any cow that can do this has just the genetics we’re looking for in our future herd and continues to impact our herd genetics positively over time. Any cow that can’t will be fired before she makes much of a genetic contribution to the herd. Any bull I select for my own use MUST come from a older cows as that predisposes future generations for success.
Low Maintenance Requirements:
I just touched on this but if she is fertile and long-lasting she obviously doesn’t demand much from me. I need thrifty cows. Because much of my forage base is fescue, I’m looking for short, barrel-shaped, light-weight cows. Hall said 70% of a cow’s feed is used to maintain condition. A 1,700 pound cow has to eat much more feed to maintain condition than does a 1,000 pound cow. There are only so many hours in a day. How many pounds of forage can a cow ingest and ruminate on each day? To be direct, a heifer that is weaned above 600 pounds won’t last. The cards are stacked against the big cow in a forage-based operation. 111 stays fat no matter what. Notice how wide her mouth…it’s as wide as her eyes. Maybe wider.
So where do you find these cows?
I wish I knew. You need to pick a bull based on his mother and her production numbers. How many calves has she thrown. How big were the calves? How big is the mother? How old is she? When looking for heifers from within our herd or when buying outside, look for calves that weaned below 500 pounds. We’re looking for a 4-5 frame score. Again, big cows have to eat more to maintain condition. Small cows are hard to market. I could probably run 2-3 Dexter cows per acre on my farm but what feedlot wants to finish out Dexters? I have to find the middle ground between what the market demands and what is profitable to produce. They can’t be too big, they can’t be too small. Hall says to sell the extremes. Hall also pointed out that crossbred cattle tend to have better longevity. That’s something to consider when buying stock.
Over time there are things you are watching for in your herd. Cows should be feminine but we’re looking for function, not beauty. A cow with a rough hair coat should find work elsewhere (I have a couple of these). A cow with bad feet or a bad udder should go down the road. Too big or too small? No calf this year? Poor attitude? Prolapse? Down the road.
This kind of selection doesn’t require much of the manager. It comes back to the three O’s (which are really two O’s); Old, Open or Ornery. The old cow will eventually come up open, weather from loss of teeth, bad joints or whatever. The selection process is hard on herd numbers early on but success breeds success…literally. In a few years…decades maybe – a picture of our cows will feature less leg than this one both from change in genetics and prenatal response to conditions and management. Really.
In part 3 we’ll go a little more in-depth on ideas David has for making the operation profitable and ways to smooth out the highs and lows of the cattle market.