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Virginia Cooperative Extension -
 Knowledge for the CommonWealth

The Cow-Calf Manager

Livestock Update, March 2003

John B. Hall, Extension Animal Scientist, Beef, VA Tech

What is the Value of Quality Replacement Heifers?

After several years of drought and the promise of a good spring many producers are looking toward rebuilding their herds. Buying bred or open replacement heifers is often a good option for increasing herd numbers. Purchasing quality young cow/calf pairs is sometimes an alternative for herd expansion. Most market indicators point to the replacement female market being average to strong this year. This means there may be an opportunity for breeders of quality bred commercial heifers. However, buyers of replacement females will also have an opportunity to improve their herds this year if they are careful about what heifers they purchase.

Buying replacement beef females is very often a case of "you get what you pay for." Purchasing the cheapest bred heifer you can find is not always the best buy. Too often we get the idea that we need to purchase replacement females at Cow-Mart or BigH, when we should be purchasing higher quality animals from a known source. So what makes a higher quality replacement female and what is it worth?

Reproductive soundness and calving ease are the most important factors in replacement heifer selection. Research indicates that heifers that breed early in their first breeding season have greater longevity and produce calves that are 25 lbs. heavier per year than heifers that breed late. The extra weaning weight is worth about $ 0.60 per pound. If a heifer produces 6 calves in her lifetime, then the value of the extra pounds she produces is $ 90. Producers also may want to factor in the value of the early breeding heifer staying in the herd one or two more years.

Reducing dystocia or calving difficulty also increases the value of a heifer. Heavy calf birth weight and small pelvic openings are the primary causes of dystocia in heifers. Heifers that experience dystocia have a 15-20% reduction in pregnancy rate compared to heifers that do not have any calving problems. In addition, calves that have to be pulled may have lower weaning weights, and these calves are 4 times more likely to die before weaning. So what is the cost of calving problems? One study found that production costs are increased by $ 5.00 for every cow in the herd because of dystocia. But the real cost varies from operation to operation. One open heifer may result in a net loss of $50-$300 depending on her salvage value and calf value minus the purchase price and production (feed, vet., etc) costs. A heifer that doesn't wean a calf, but is pregnant, results in a decrease in income of $300-$400.

So how can you pick a heifer that is reproductively sound and should calve easily? Bred heifers should have bred early in their first exposure to a bull or AI. Bred heifers should calve between 24 and 26 months of age. Avoid heifers that were bred to calve at 30-36 months or did not breed early in the breeding season. Open heifers should have a reproductive tract score of 3 or better. All heifers should be bred to bulls that are below breed average for birth weight EPD. Crossbred heifers should be bred to British breed bulls. All heifers should have a minimum pelvic area of 150 sq. centimeters at 12 months of age.

In the Virginia Premium Assured Heifer (VAPAH) Program, bred heifers must conceive within the first 50 days of the breeding season, be bred to low Birth Weight EPD bulls (2.0 or less Angus equivalent), and have yearling pelvic area of > 150 sq. cm. The average calving assistance rate for VA Premium Assured Heifers was 12 % compared to 18 % to 25 % for the national average. VAPAH open heifers must have a reproductive tract score of 3 and meet the minimum yearling pelvic area. Reports indicate that pregnancy rates in these heifers average 90 to 95 %.

Genetic merit is the second most important consideration. Heifers that milk well and pass along positive attributes for growth and muscling will have a positive impact on farm income. Knowing the sire of a replacement heifer is important. Replacement heifers should be sired by bulls that are above average for growth EPDs (weaning or yearling weight), and have an adequate Milk EPD. Sire EPDs for growth should be above breed average but should not be extreme. Crossbred heifers will also bring in positive heterosis for growth and reproductive traits. Crossbreeding increases calving rate by 3.5 %. The combined effect of increased growth and milk production produce calves with weaning weights that are 25-30 lbs heavier than calves from average to below average heifers. The value of the extra weaning weight is $15-$18 per year.

Heifers bred to AI sires should produce calves with a "more complete" genetic package. Through AI, breeders have better access to sires that excel in several traits. Many commercial heifer breeders focus their AI program on producing females as well as quality steers. So, heifers bred AI carrying heifer calves may be worth more to programs wanting to expand. Heifers bred AI during the same 3 day period will calve over a 10 day period. This means buyers can concentrate the time they are observing these heifers during calving. What is the value of AI bred heifers? Over the last 4 years, buyers have paid between $ 50 and $100 more for AI bred heifers than natural service heifers.

Phenotypic traits are also important. Replacements should be moderate framed, structurally correct, easy fleshing, and adequately muscled. Moderate framed heifers will produce moderate framed calves desired by the industry. Also, these moderate framed heifers will require less feed than large framed heifers. In addition, proper muscling will reduce the number of #2 muscled calves produced, which increases farm income. What's the value of correct phenotype? It is difficult to put an exact figure on it, but if correct phenotype increases longevity by one year while decreasing cow costs and percentage of #2 muscled calves it is probably worth $100 to $200 over the cow's lifetime.

All VAPAH are screened by a VAPAH committee for proper frame size, muscling and temperament. They are also free of defects like bad eyes and frosted ears. VA Premium Assured Plus heifers are sired by bulls that meet minimum EPD requirements for growth and milking ability. In general, yearling weight EPD is in the top 50% and Milk EPD is in the top 70%.

A quality health and vaccination program is the next most important criteria. Some may argue it is the most important. Heifers that are vaccinated against respiratory and reproductive diseases are more likely to produce live, healthy calves. In addition, well-vaccinated animals present a lower herd health risk when brought into the herd. Animals that have been tested negative for certain diseases such as anaplasmosis also eliminate the chance of introducing a disease into the herd. What is this type of program worth a year? Depending on the program the cost of the vaccine, dewormers and tests are $ 10-$25 per heifer. The value of reducing incidence of disease in purchased animals or into your herd? Perhaps priceless.

The VAPAH health program includes vaccinations for IBR, PI3, BVD, BRSV, Brucellosis, Leptospirosis and 7-way blackleg. Heifers are dewormed and treated for external parasites. In addition, they have tested negative for anaplasmosis. Some sales such as the VA Beef Expo sale also require a negative TB test.

When selecting commercial replacement females producers should use the VAPAH guidelines as the standard. Heifers sold at VAPAH sales are certified as to their health, reproductive status, and genetics. Several VAPAH sales are coming up this spring. For more information on VAPAH sales see the website at or contact John B. Hall at 540-231-9153. Heifers meeting similar standards are often sold private treaty or at purebred production sales. Wherever beef producers purchase heifers they should remember to ask for information and documentation.

What's a fair price for a bred replacement heifer? Well that depends on many factors including tax considerations, current market, future calf value, and genetics of the buyers herd. For many operations in Virginia, VAPAH Plus heifers would be a strong genetic improvement; whereas, for other operations, these heifers would equal the genetics in the herd. Over the past 3 years, VAPAH bred heifers averaged $955 per head. Based on the discussion above, elite bred heifers such as VAPAH heifers should return an additional $300-$600 to the operation over their lifetime. Each commercial producer needs to decide what they can afford for replacements for their operation, but investing in quality heifers will pay dividends compared to buying average bred heifers.

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