The Cow-Calf Manager
Livestock Update, April 2002
John B. Hall, Extension Animal Scientist, Beef, VA Tech
Purchasing Replacement Heifers May Be the Right Choice
Typically, beef cattle operations have raised their own replacement heifers; however, as the dairy and swine industry have realized raising your own replacements may not always be the best choice. Raising replacement heifers properly requires the dedication of management, capital and physical resources that may be better used for other aspects of the operation. That's why many dairy operations have shifted to purchasing heifers, so they can concentrate capital and management resources on the lactating cow.
In the beef industry, farms with less than 100 cows or those wishing to expand should consider purchasing replacement heifers. Many large ranches are purchasing their heifers as well. Another alternative for large outfits is to dedicate a single ranch to the development of heifers, which supplies replacements to all of the cowherds controlled by the operation. However, this in not an option for most of our Virginia farms and ranches, so purchasing heifers is a solution.
Purchasing replacement heifers offers several advantages and creates more opportunities for flexibility.
Decreased reproductive problems. The purchase of carefully screened and bred heifers can greatly reduce the possibility of calving difficulty. This is especially true when heifers are bred to AI bulls with low birth weight EPDs that are highly accurate. Heifers from elite replacement heifer programs in Kentucky, Missouri and Virginia, that stress proper bull selection and minimum heifer pelvic area, consistently have few calving problems than the national average. Virginia Premium Assured Heifers have a 6 to 12 % lower incidence of calving difficulty.
Open heifers that have been reproductive tract scored and pelvic measured have a greater probability of being reproductively successful than heifers with no reproductive exam. Heifers with reproductive tract scores of 3 to 5 have a high likelihood of becoming pregnant. Heifers with a pelvic area of over 150 sq cm at a year of age have less calving problems when bred to a low birth weight EPD bull.
Greater flexibility in bull selection. A major advantage to purchasing bred heifers is the operation no longer requires a "heifer bull". This allows for emphasis on growth and carcass traits in sire selection. Since replacements are purchased, even a small operation can shift to a terminal system. This allows selection of sires from higher growth continental breeds such as Charolais or Simmental resulting in more pounds of calf sold per cow, which increases income. Bulls with high growth EPD's and birth weight EPD's that are unacceptable for heifers, but fine for cows, are often bargains at bulls sales.
More income producers. Home raised heifers must be managed and fed for 18 months from weaning to calving. In contrast, purchased heifers may only need to be kept for 3 to 5 months before calving. The cash costs of raising heifers compared to purchasing them may be slightly less, but these home raised heifers take up resources and space that could be used for cows. Cows are income producers while replacement heifers are non-income-producing units until they calve. Every 2 or 3 home-raised heifers take up the resources of 1 cow. So purchasing heifers should allow producers to keep more income-producing cows.
Improvement of herd genetics. Purchasing replacement heifers is an excellent way to improve the genetic base and physical uniformity of a herd. Buyers can select heifers on a variety of genetic and phenotypic traits. Most replacement heifer producers eliminate heifers with structural problems, but several programs including the VA Premium Assured Heifers have additional requirements on frame size and muscling. Professional commercial heifer producers often have genetic selection programs that rival some purebred producers. These producers can give you information on EPD's of the sires and grandsires of their heifers. Systematic selection from large numbers of heifers results in genetically superior animals that excel in growth and milk production in typical VA production situations. The VA Premium Assured Plus designation recognizes heifers that have met minimum requirements for growth and milk production. It is important for buyers visiting with replacement heifer producers to identify animals that possess the desired genetics for the buyer's operation.
Consistent crossbreeding. Crossbreeding increases calf growth, cow longevity and reproductive rate. However, it is difficult for even large cow/calf producers to maintain a consistent crossbreeding program. It is especially difficult to produce crossbred replacement heifers in small herds. Yet, the crossbred cow is one of the best investments for the cow/calf operation. Purchasing crossbred replacement heifers allows even small herds to have all the advantages of a crossbred cow without having to maintain bulls of several different breeds.
Better management. Eliminating the replacement heifer raising operation from the ranch allows management and resources to be concentrated on the remaining operations. This may result in improvements in the cow herd like increased pregnancy rates or decreased calf losses.
Tax advantage. Purchased breeding stock are considered a depreciable investment. These animals are a 5-year depreciable item. Although, this should not be a major factor in deciding to purchase replacement heifers, it is an advantage of purchasing replacements.
Purchasing replacement heifers is definitely worth consideration. Buyers should consider all the advantages against the costs and risks of this management strategy. For many producers in Virginia, purchasing replacement heifers would increase productivity and uniformity of their herd.