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Don’t get sentimental picking replacement cattle

Keep the best of your own, or look to buy quality heifers

Often in late fall and early winter, many producers face the task of adding replacement heifers to their cow herd, both from their own weaned heifer crop and potentially from other breeders. This routine process often yields mediocre and mixed results, so the question might be: “What can be done to take some of the guesswork out of choosing the proper females to become a part of productive commercial cow herds?”

Begin with removing your personalized ranch-coloured goggles and do your best to see your own heifers for what they really are. Honestly ask the question: “Is old Matilda’s calf really good enough to select as a replacement, or is your thinking swayed by the fact that momma has been around forever and the grandkids happened to be there when she delivered Matilda Junior, making her the family pet?”

I’ve seen a variation of this happen more often than I can remember and have even been a victim of it myself. Consider it like a draft pick for your favourite team. There are only so many choices, so don’t waste them.

Look clearly at the state of your own cow herd. Don’t water down the choices of your own calves just to fill a quota. Where are the genetics of your herd and how can they be improved? Will keeping your own calves offer enough chance to grow your herd’s production or will it continue the status quo? If the bar is already set high, maybe the status quo is the right option, but seriously consider if your cows are “good enough” or if it would be smarter to attempt the addition of fertility, progeny growth, disposition, feet and legs, udder quality, milking volume and early birth dates.

Cut the troublemakers

The easiest way to begin your selection is by starting at the negative end of the spectrum by first disqualifying obvious heifers that don’t fit the mold. Cut out aggressive or wild heifers, even if they are the best looking of the bunch. If you keep them, Murphy’s Law ensures they will have calving problems on a miserable blustery day when no one is around but old Sonny and me, and we are not young enough to deal with that nonsense any longer. Discard those that have mothers with a history of heavy calves and troublesome birthing. Say no to overly large or small heifers and be wary of hereditary feet and leg problems.

To increase the chances of your heifers becoming pregnant and delivering a healthy calf that fits into the calving season, they must reach puberty as far in advance of the breeding season as possible. Look for the heifer to have the generally accepted weight of about 60-65 per cent of their likely mature weight. Not only will this offer the best chance to successfully breed in the first 21 days of bull exposure, it will increase the chances of calving unassisted, which will in turn allow time to recover and rebreed early in the second breeding season.

Examine your own records from previous calving seasons. If you are choosing between the calf of a young or older cow, lean toward the offspring of the older cow. Picking this category of heifer not only puts forth an early date of puberty and higher weights at breeding and calving times, but increases fertility by accessing the offspring of your most fertile cows. Longevity of the dam will very likely produce daughters that will also offer optimum pregnancy rates over time.

Don’t forget to look at the sire of your potential replacement heifers. Ignore his strapping good looks and if possible check into his maternal EPD numbers. If you purchased him mainly for high weaning and finishing weights in his offspring, perhaps his daughters are not the best choices for replacements.

Ultimately, know there are options to consider. You can choose your own heifers for replacements, sell the calves with an agreement to buy the heifers back in the spring if so desired, contract with a reputable breeder of replacement heifers or buy them all out right from other producers. Remember this is your best chance to improve the foundation of your cow herd. Don’t settle for the status quo. Be willing to step out and make the slightly tougher but better choice.

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