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Finding Females for the Cowherd

March 20, 2017

Finding females for the cowherd to either replace cull cows or increase herd size can be done in many ways. The type and kind of females chosen is an important decision which can have long-term implications and great impact on the economic viability of the operation. With that being said, we have the unfortunate circumstance of living in a short-term world where profitability varies widely from year to year influencing our daily decisions. Therefore, we need to make the best replacement decisions we can at a reasonable price and hope to set ourselves up for success in the future.

With bred cow sales continuing across the state, start by going back to the basics and evaluate the goals of the operation. Can value be realized in certain areas of production (increase weaning weight, decrease feed cost, increase longevity) in order to free-up capital needed to purchase/keep more females? This article will address management areas to evaluate in order to find ways to keep the “right” females in the herd that will help increase returns in tough years like this so genetic progress doesn’t have to stop.

Define “Ideal” Females
Start with the basic goals of the operation to select the type and kind of females you want to keep in the herd. What criteria do heifers have to have to make the herd and what do cows have to meet to keep their spot in the herd? Outline herd objectives to identify if cows are making the cut or not:

  • Weaning 50% of her body weight or x lbs.
  • Calve and breed back on time with limited assistance
  • Maintain body condition score with limited resources
  • Match inventory available – stocking density of large vs. small cows
  • Good eyes, teeth, feet, legs, udder, etc.

If females don’t meet the herd criteria, they‘ll likely fall on the cull list and find wheels under them on the way to town shortly. However, some cows meet some but not all criteria. Such as late bred cows that don’t fall into the desired calving window. Late cows could be marketed to an operation with a later calving season which would free-up capital, labor and time to be added to another, potentially more profitable, enterprise. If you do make the decision to sell some bred cows, a repurchase calculator is available from ISU Ag Decision Maker to help in comparing how much can be spent when purchasing new females depending on sale date and feed savings.

Smart Cost Cutting
Evaluate everyday decisions that have a major impact long-term on the bottom line. Areas such as feed costs which account for 60% of the expenses on the operation is a good place to start. Nutrition is a very important factor on the ranch which impacts reproduction, health and profitability. However, instead of feeding the same feedstuff’s you have always fed, is there an alternative feed that can be substituted in the ration at a lower cost? Or is limit feeding an option?

Areas that shouldn’t be cut to save a penny here or there include health, pregnancy check and bull quality. Herd health programs are vital to the success of the ranch whether you’re selling calves or retaining replacement heifers. In addition, pregnancy checking cows can save in feed costs by eliminating open cows before feeding them through the winter. Lastly, bull quality should never be sacrificed as a poor bull will likely return less than desirable calves to the herd which won’t return a premium to the balance sheet next year.

Heifers vs. Cows
Bred heifers should represent the newest genetics in the herd and be selected to help direct the operation towards its ultimate goal. However, it takes much attention to detail to develop heifers effectively and set them up to successfully enter the cowherd. Thus, can some get the same genetic progress and longevity by buying bred heifers instead of raising them? Or purchasing older cows instead of heifers? It really depends on the operation and is influenced by the management style, nutrition and breeding programs. Comparing expenses of raising vs. buying heifers or labor differences between cows and heifers can help make this decisions. Additional expenses of cost, number and type of bulls needed, value of labor, calf revenue and stocking rate should be evaluated.

The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, profitability begins with a live calf. Management will be key in all areas of the operation this year and exploring change in specific areas may prove to be very valuable to the overall profitability of the operation this year.

Source: Taylor Grussing, South Dakota State University, iGrow