Selecting heifers for ranch productivity

Heifer selection is the foundation of a cowherd and without an intentional, thought-out plan for a herd profitability may suffer. Burke Teichert, retired vice president and general manager at Deseret Ranches, said ranchers should first ask if they are selecting for a cowherd or individual heifers.

He further challenges producers to ask themselves if they are selecting for the heifer’s lifetime productivity or the cowherd’s annual or long-term profitability? Next, he wants ranchers to define their big picture goals—are they after profit or bragging rights?

“In other words, do we want to have the biggest, prettiest heifers or do we want our whole ranch to be profitable,” Teichert explained. “I hope it’s whole ranch profitability.”

When it comes to productivity or profitability, Teichert says ranchers should be striving for both.

“We would like to have both because profitability, to some extent, is driven by productivity,” he added.

Teichert says the four main areas to cattlemen must manage are production, economics and finance, marketing and people.

“We manage all of those and we must tie them together in this quest for a better cow herd that begins with heifer development and selection,” he said.

Additionally, he said there are three ways to improve profit in a ranching operation: increase turnover by having more units to sell, decrease overheads and improve gross margins, which consists of the total returns minus direct costs. Teichert said ranchers need to rethink their priorities and focus on profit per acre, which is really whole ranch profit.

“We’ve got to forget about production or even profit per cow,” he explained. “Almost everything you see written focuses on profit per cow or production per cow. That can be misleading in terms of whole ranch profitability. If for example to improve production per cow or maybe profit per cow, you’ve let those cows get bigger and bigger, and as they get bigger and bigger, you have to run fewer of them on the same resource. Yes, those bigger cows will wean a bigger calf, but not proportionally bigger. The smaller cow will wean a slightly smaller calf will have a calf that you sell more total pounds on the ranch and you sell them for a higher price per pound.”

Teichert also listed several major determinants of profits, which included enterprise mix and choices, overheads, stocking rate, fed feed versus grazed feed, calving season, realized herd fertility—an animal that is conceived, born and lives long enough to be sold, wise input use for optimum production and marketing. Stocking rate is a massive driver of profitability and it is determined by cow size, milk production and grazing and pasture management. To drive home his point, Teichert challenged ranchers to imagine what doubling stocking rate could to many of their of other costs. As far as fed feed versus grazed feed, Teichert advises to ranchers to reduce fed feed and increase graze feed.

“Any time you put a machine between the mouth of the cow and her feed source, it costs you money,” he said.

Teichert said weaning weight is not on his list of determinants of profit for a reason.

“Increased weaning weight has a cost and it is not just the cost of feed. Usually as cows get bigger, fertility goes down and stocking rate diminishes. Those are costs that are harder to quantify.”

Replacement heifers made easy

The first question Teichert recommends ranchers ask themselves when it comes to heifer selection is if they are a cow calf operation raising their our own replacement heifers or if they are a cow calf operation buying replacement cows.

“Those two things can make a lot of difference and I might suggest that some ranchers just be buying replacement cows,” he said. “You’ll make more money terminal crossing cows than you will raising your own replacements in a high percentage of the time.”

Although heifer development is thought to be difficult and costly, Teichert sees it differently.

“We have this emphasis on heifer pregnancy because we get this impression that it costs a lot of money to develop a heifer,” Teichert said. “You don’t have to look at heifer development as a big expense. You might in fact look at it as wonderful profit opportunity, and not by selling bred heifers, but by selling those that are open.”

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First off, he suggests matching cow size and calving season to your available resources.

“Cow size and calving season is connected to carrying capacity, fed feed versus grazed feed, overheads, grazing management, labor and facilities and herd fertility,” he said. “They affect each other and vice versa. Change the calving season to be more closely in sync with nature.”

Next, Teichert recommends increasing grazing days and reduce feeding days.

“When we do that, we’re helping ourselves make money, but we have to have adaptability and that starts to come with the way we minimally develop and select heifers,” he explained. “By minimal I don’t mean starve them, but I sure don’t mean give them 65% of expected mature cow body weight. With minimal development, you’re asking heifers to fit the environment and the ones that don’t get pregnant are still profitable, they are just another stocker and stockers are usually more profitable than cows and calves.”

The only difference in cost in heifers that are developed this way and stockers is that bulls are put out with the heifers. Teichert’s next tip is to reduce inputs, then cull the right cows, such as open cows, dry cows, animals that require extra attention, wild animals, cows that raised poor calves and ugly cows. The next step is to select the right bull, but Teichert warns cattlemen to be careful. If you are raising your own replacement heifers, small to moderate size is big enough. He said to select for excellent cow fertility and low care requirement, but be careful with milk.

“Most ranchers have too much milk in their herds and want more,” he said. “You need milk and it needs to be adequate to get the calf started in life, but I call milk anti-maternal after it gets to a certain level.”

Always remember longevity is a result of fertility and fertility is a result of environmental fit and fertility is the result of environmental fit.

“To put it in a nutshell, profitable ranch management can be pretty much summarized by reducing overheads, market well, and improve three key ratios: acres per cows, cows per full-time equivalent in labor and fed feed versus grazed feed,” Teichert explained. “If you can be improving those all the time, you can be improving your profitability.”

Lacey Newlin can be reached at 620-227-1871 or [email protected].