So, since I’m suggesting that you do something differently than the typical rancher, the question “Why not?” deserves an answer.
For some time, I have been an advocate that we cannot select replacement heifers—we should instead let the bulls and Mother Nature select them for us. To do this, I have promoted retaining and exposing most of your heifer calf crop for a short breeding season—no longer than 30 days.
A number of years ago, a group of us measured, scored and visually evaluated as many traits as we could think of that might relate to a heifer’s income-generating capability as a cow. While we did not follow this long enough to draw any definite conclusions, nothing that we measured, by itself or in combination, could predict enough of the economic difference in outcomes to confirm our belief that we could, in fact, select replacement heifers. My observations on many heifers since then have strengthened my conviction that we can’t select heifers accurately. But, the bulls and our environment can!
I now do quite a bit of speaking to cattlemen’s groups of one kind or another. After one of those talks, I was asked if I would consider using genomic testing to make a first selection of heifers and then use the short breeding season. I responded that I would not, at least not in that order. The next question was, “Why not?”
That question reminded me of my first meeting with the late Bud Williams, noted livestock handling guru. Upon noticing that I was looking for things that I did like Bud might do them, he quickly stopped me and suggested that I should look for and focus on the things that he did differently than I and then ask why he did it that way. So, since I’m suggesting that you do something differently than the typical rancher, the question “Why not?” deserves an answer.
The heifers that you have are what they are; and while you would like them to be as good genetically as possible, those that breed early in their first breeding season have a tremendous competitive advantage over the other heifers in lifetime production—they will breed earlier in subsequent breeding seasons and thus wean a bigger calf and will produce at least one more calf in their lifetime.
All the other genetic traits that you might look for cannot compete economically with early breeding of yearling heifers. Even though I understand and appreciate the power and value of genomic information, I am still unsure of our ability to balance traits economically and to avoid genetic antagonisms.
After pregnancy checking and finding the pregnant heifers, I might then use genomic testing as part of my culling criteria for those heifers as they progress in age, but only if I have an excess of young pregnant cows. If, for example, I were to have an excess of pregnant heifers after culling the typical culls (opens, dries, bad disposition, raised a poor calf, ugly); I might then use genomics to select the next order of culling from the bred heifers or older cows. My inclination would be to keep the heifers and cull a few more cows.
I also recommend “minimal development” of replacement heifers, which means they are treated similar to stocker cattle between weaning and breeding. This results in a breeding weight that will be closer to 55% of expected mature cow weight than the 65% that is so often recommended.
That is another reason to put the genomic testing behind the pregnancy testing. When changing to minimal development and short exposure of heifers, you should not expect a high pregnancy rate; thus the need to keep a high number of heifers. However, selling the open heifers should be nicely profitable. We should remember that yearling operations are usually more profitable than cow-calf operations.
There might be situations where you cannot develop heifers adequately with a “minimal” approach. If that is the case, it is probable that your cows are not a good fit for your environment. Remember, to your cows, the environment is the natural environment plus whatever you add to it. You may need to move toward “minimal” development and reduce the length of the breeding season a little more slowly.
A Handbook for Ranch Managers. In keeping with the “holistic” idea that the land, the livestock, the people and the money should be viewed as a single integrated whole: Part I deals with the management of the natural resources. Part II covers livestock production and Part III deals with the people and the money. Not only would this book make an excellent basic text for a university program in Ranch Management, no professional ranch manager’s reference bookshelf should be without it. It is a comprehensive reference manual for managing the working ranch. The information in the appendices and extensive bibliography alone is worth the price of the book.
You might also be interested in the supplement to this Handbook: Planned Grazing: A Study Guide and Reference Manual.