Developing a set of good heifers is the goal of everyone raising their own replacements. Success depends on many factors, including age at puberty, herd health, a proper vaccination program, parasite control and nutrition. Fertility and age at puberty are heritable but also influenced by nutrition.
Heifers need optimal nutrition for growth and development, including proper amounts of energy, protein, and important trace minerals, but this doesn’t mean overfeeding. A heifer genetically programmed for early puberty and fertility and on a moderate plane of nutrition will still cycle earlier and be more successful for a long life of production than a less-fertile heifer overfed to reach her “target weight” for breeding.
Producers want heifers to reach puberty quickly, but don’t want them fat. Fat is detrimental to fertility, milking ability, calving ease, soundness and longevity. Easy-fleshing, efficient cattle reach puberty early on moderate feed without pampering. The objective is to have cattle that will perform optimally on the forage a ranch produces, rather than having to buy supplemental feeds. Thus the first step in a heifer program is to have the right genetics for efficient cattle.
Voice of experience
Jack Holden of Holden Herefords at Valier, Montana is part of a family that has been raising Herefords for more than 50 years. “We wean the end of August, at about seven months of age,” Holden says. “We wean in a pen for a few days, and put the heifers on a corn-based pellet that is 14 per cent protein and four per cent fat. They only get between two and three pounds per day. The main reason we feed them — even when they are back on grass — is just to be out there with them every day, walking through them. This is partly to check for health issues, but also to get them used to being around people. This helps with disposition issues and gentles them nicely.”
Holden says once the heifers get used to coming to the bunks for feed, they are turned out on hayfield aftermath, but continue to receive the feed pellets once a day.
They are fed at least some feed pellets all through winter, and supplemented as needed with a chopped hay mix that contains some good alfalfa as well as barley straw. “We add a forage crop bale that could include combinations of hay, wheat, barley or forage peas,” Holden says. “We can also utilize new seeding hay, or rained-on hay as a quarter of that mix, to add roughage.”
With replacement heifers, Holden targets a 1.5 pound per day rate of gain although that can increase to 1.7 pounds per day, “which is partly due to our beef genetics,” he says. “They are efficient cattle and gain well.” The heifers stay on that ration until early February. The pellets are fed in bunks and chopped hay is put in feeders where they eat free choice.
The plan is to quit feeding pellets about February 1, and keep heifers on chopped hay as well as an ionophore tub supplement. “This helps with feed efficiency and earlier puberty,” Holden says. “We continue this supplement through breeding, which starts the first of April. They breed up nicely on this ration.”
About 50 days later, around May 20, the bulls are removed from the heifer-breeding pasture. “We usually don’t have any grass until May 10, so we are about done breeding by the time they are on grass,” he says. “The heifers weigh about 900 pounds and are beginning to cycle when they go out with the bulls. We usually have about a 95 per cent conception rate in a 50-day breeding season.”
A few of the open heifers may be bred by artificial insemination although they don’t use a synchronization program and don’t rely too heavily on AI.
Well-developed heifers breed quickly without synchronizing programs. “We’ve had better luck just turning bulls out with them than when using AI on heifers,” Holden says. These heifers are in large pastures of 40 to 80 acres all winter, and travel a lot. With the bulls turned out on these pastures for breeding, he figures the walking and open space all helps to make better cows if allowed more room to develop naturally.
“Our heifer program has worked very well for making cows. We never push them hard but it’s steady, continuous growing. They never fall behind, so we never have to push them.”
Holden says the goal is to have heifers that turn into cows with staying power in the herd and that usually happens best if they are not pushed too much as heifers. “They do better, for fertility and longevity, if they are just growing and not so fat.”