Beef heifer and cow selection impacts herd

The drought conditions during recent years led to cattle producers selling cows and downsizing, but Rick Funston, beef cattle reproductive physiologist at the University of Nebraska said cowherds are growing again.

Reproduction is the single most important factor for profitability in the cowherd and Funston said producers are selecting more of the right cows to add to the herd.

“Cows need to have calves first before we worry about what they are like in other areas. And time of calving affects production too,” said Funston.

He suggested using tools to improve reproduction. Artificial insemination and the use of synchronization are tools that can be used to make the calving season shorter and determine which heifers and cows are most fertile.

“There are several different synchronization programs out there. Reviewing them can help you determine which would work best for your operation,” he said. “By using AI in the herd, fewer bulls would be needed to follow.”

Funston said even with a synchronization program, cows won’t all calve on the same day and won’t cycle back at the same time, therefore large groups can be done at the same time to shorten the amount of time extra labor is needed.

“A cow that calves in the first 21 days of the calving interval will increase her time in the herd and become a part of the group to stay in the herd for the long term,” he added.

Funston said producers need to know their cowherd well enough to know if they should buy or raise their replacements. If purchased, the background of the herd heifers are purchased from is important for the longevity of the females.

Nutrition is also important when breeding heifers and cows. Funston said heifers can be bred at a lighter weight with a shorter breeding season and still successfully raise calves.

“If heifers are weaned on Nov. 1, weighing about 500 pounds, the producer has 180 days to get the 250 pounds on the heifers for breeding on May 1,” he said. “Post breeding feed availability is important at that point to be able to have the heifers grow to the weight and develop the calf to what it needs by calving time.”

Sire selection determines 85 percent of the genetic potential in a herd. Heifers without dystocia problems breed back sooner, he said. Proper selection of sires makes a big difference for the first calf and for the future of both the calf and the cow.

“When using EPDs (expected progeny differences) to select animals for your herd, remember there needs to be parameters,” said Funston. “Too much one way or the other on an EPD can cause problems. Having highly fertile heifer calves can lead to those calves being bred while on the cow and that causes problems as well.”

Expectations are high for cows and Funston said it’s important to be able to provide the necessary resources. Quality feedstuffs, minerals, hay and grass are needed to improve conception rates.

“Protein, energy, minerals, vitamins and water need to be available for a cow to be ready to raise a calf,” he said. “Body condition at calving should be 5 to 6. From calving to breeding is important, but cows who are thinner are less fertile.”

For more information regarding supplementation of heifers and cows and synchronization programs, visit

Jennifer Carrico can be reached at 515-833-2120 or [email protected].