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Tips on selecting female replacement cattle

In reality, bulls are more dispensable than good cows

Beef producers place a lot of emphasis on finding a suitable herd sire as no one can dismiss the importance of bull power in the herd. As the overworked but entirely accurate phrase aptly illustrates, “your bull is half the herd.”

However the “other” half merits significant consideration for the single largest livestock investment is clearly a ranchers’ cow herd. Whatever genetic success might be attributed to individual bulls, without a powerful lot of females to breed, these bulls will actually contribute comparatively little to overall herd improvement in the first generation.

It will likely be the second or third generation following that will begin to show measurable improved genetics since heritable traits we wish to see expressed are not necessarily the ones actually or consistently delivered. Some crosses simply don’t work well and others might not be friendly to our target expectations. A $10,000 bull bred to a $1,000 cow will not reliably produce those “half the herd” $5,000 calves, if ever.

Any bull can be discarded with a relatively moderate asset loss, but one’s cow herd as a whole enjoys no such flexibility.

There are numbers of sound reasons ranchers choose female replacements entirely from within their own herd or why conversely, they may prefer to out source all or a few. Arguments can be made in each instance, the primary issue being individual preferences dictated by whatever seems to work best through experience.

Preferred our own

We preferred the comfort of knowing our home-grown replacements were more or less disease free, backed by comprehensive performance records of both sires and dams which helped remove considerable guesswork on a range of A to Z traits.

A new producer is fortunate if they can fall heir to a complete dispersal cow herd unsullied through selective cherry picking in advance of the sale. Older but proven performance cows have remained in that herd for a reason and if the exiting breeder is someone of reputable standing significantly more dollars can be justifiably spent. However it has been known to happen where breeders seek to take advantage of this principle by creating phantom dispersal sales while retaining their top genetics as seed for rebuilding after the sale. That does the industry a tremendous disservice.

What to look for in a female

Like the search for a suitable bull, the question of the day becomes what to look for in a reproductive female. Most ranchers have a fixed idea of what traits a cow should have. What appeals to one buyer may not to another.

By training or fundamental inclination most people prefer a specific strain of cattle. The best advice I can offer is to go with that type. You need to like what you see and will find yourself more tolerant of minor imperfections than you might be if you had been persuaded into buying into a breed you find less appealing.

There are probably more differences of opinion on females than in bull selection, but regardless of traits the basics remain the same. Look for sound feet and legs, proper frame size for the breed with moderate to fine bone structure, widely spaced hipbones, inherently good health, agreeable temperament and of course well-balanced four teat udders with consistent fertility.

Heifer calves are the most difficult to judge for potential and it is imperative their dams and sires be examined even more closely than the calves themselves. You’re not going to get a reliable mental print out of future performance by simply eye balling the calf. ROP records are useful, excluding (in my considered opinion) EPDs, which in our experience we found to be considerably more of a distraction than intrinsically beneficial.

Look for milk folds

There seems to be some consistency of belief that the absence or presence of so called “milk folds” in the upper udder portion under the lower tail section in a heifer is indicative of future milking capacity. Numbers of deep folds are very desirable and we found this to be a good guide for us when deciding whether to retain or market a female.

We might not keep a heifer with well-expressed folds for numbers of reasons, but we would definitely not bring her into the cow herd as a potential producer if these folds were absent. I’m not sure why this is relevant but if you examine a male calf in the same manner you will note the absence of folds entirely. I suspect the folds are somehow related to traits involving femininity. The logic of these folds might be that an expanding high performance udder needs room to do so at lactation, but it’s another guess.

Registration of sire pedigrees can be important to commercial buyers of females in that they will indicate degrees of line breeding, if any. Limited line breeding can be extremely beneficial in crossbred cows since it promotes a degree of consistency in calf crops when a cow is served by a purebred sire. As much as we were opposed to EPDs we were in considerable support of purebred line breeding with advantages significantly outweighing potential problems, but only where assured purity of genetics permitted such mating.

Ease of calving

Virtually every breed will advertise ease of calving and in reality each breed can credibly make that claim if calving is done in intensively managed hands-on circumstances. The definition of ease of calving however needs some latitude of interpretation. Clearly some cows can and will calve successfully and consistently unassisted and unobserved on range, while others need to be nursed extensively from beginning to end, but are still seen in rancher’s performance records as “easy calving” using the criterion of no veterinary intervention as an essential guideline. If no vet call is made its rated as an easy birth regardless of any other local calving aid employed.

Balanced udder

The longer we raised cattle the more insistent we became on balanced udders. Aside from presenting a pleasing appearance a well-proportioned udder looks professional, as though someone has taken the time to manage his or her herd to superior genetic standards. Two badly undersized and two huge teats may be marginally functional, but are also the root of substantial problems beginning with poor calf acceptance.

When a teat is as large as the calf’s snout the chances of it being brought into production in line with other teats is small indeed. The calf may be searching for another spigot by chewing on the cow’s unclean leg and frequently does. Calves seem to be able to count to four and four teats is what they should have, not two sort of serviceable units and two engorged balloons.

As in other purchases, when buying females for your herd you get what you pay for. A cow, like a bull, may be either an expense or an investment and as always it’s buyer’s choice.

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