Economical heifer developmentWritten by Christy Hemken
Irv Petsch of Meriden says his family began heifer development in 1997 after they constructed a new feedlot. He says some years they take in a lot of outside heifers, while others they only develop their own replacements.
“On a year when feed is short we’ll get a lot more heifers in because producers are looking for someone to feed them and take care of them,” says Petsch, adding he doesn’t expect many heifers this fall. “We’ll wait and see what winter brings. Sometimes when there’s a lot of feed but a bad winter we’ll have guys that’ll just as soon as have someone else take care of their heifers for them.”
While the Petsch operation is mainly a feedlot with a few outside heifers on the side, Juan Reyes’s heifer development center near Wheatland routinely runs 5,000 head of heifers each winter, synchronizing and breeding 3,000 of them come spring.
“I thought it was a good, sound business and an opportunity for ranchers to evaluate their heifers under feedlot conditions,” says Reyes of the operation. His center is also an added service to his bull customers.
“A lot of people were going to Nebraska with their heifers and I thought we could supply the same service here in Wyoming for a lot less cost than other places,” says Reyes. He says one reason it’s less expensive to keep heifers at his center is that they don’t get as heavy and trucking costs are lower. “It costs a lot less in trucking to go to Wheatland rather than eastern Nebraska,” he says.
Of selecting future members of a cowherd, Petsch says everyone has their own selection process, but normally one should go for good size and conformation. “If you’re a registered breeder there are quite a few more things to look at – like genetics, milk production and EPD’s. A commercial producer wants a cow that will produce a good calf to either sell at weaning or take on to fat.”
Petsch says the heifers in his center receive a feedlot ration of silage, alfalfa hay, wet distillers grain, corn and a supplement. “In our feedlot we’re able to manage micronutrients with our own machine to tweak the ration here or there,” he says, adding it also helps with synchronization.
“There are a lot of rations available, and we try to pick out the cheapest one that will get the job done,” he notes.
The heifers in the Reyes center arrive at 500 to 600 pounds and are put on a limit-fed ration. “We measure megacalories rather than throwing feed at them,” says Reyes. “We try to bring them to 750 pounds and up, depending on their frame size.”
“A balanced ration has a lot to do with a heifer’s development success,” he adds. “We can develop a heifer a lot better on a balanced ration rather than just hay.”
“An important part of heifer development is how the cattle are handled, and most of our customers use dogs with their stock and we use dogs in the feedlot,” explains Reyes. “Many customers say how much they like the way the cattle handle after they’ve been through our feedlot, and that’s important for the producers with cow/calf operations.”
Petsch says he thinks ideal weight at breeding can vary, and that what’s more important is to have a heifer in good condition. “It depends on the year and the type of cattle you’re raising,” he says of heifers’ weight gain. “The smart thing is to pick reasonably-sized heifers and get them on a good feed ration to grow them – not put on fat.”
Some heifers in the Petsch center have come in as weaned calves and left after their first calf, but he says normally they arrive in November and are run through breeding until grass starts to come, which is generally the middle of April through the first of June. Heifers in the Reyes center generally arrive in October and leave the first week in June.
“In most instances it’s cheaper for someone with a feeding system to develop a producer’s heifers than for him to do it himself,” says Petsch. “A lot of that depends on size and scale of an operation and how much feed is available. Normally an operation like ours can feed cattle cheaper with a lot less labor.”
He says facilities for artificial insemination and doctoring add to the benefits of a development center. “In most instances I’d say a heifer development operation will be cheaper and under most circumstances will do as good or better job.”
Reyes says that, with the cost of feed for the past several years, his customers have figured out it’s cheaper to bring heifers to his development center in Wheatland.
“It’s an interesting occupation and enterprise for us because it’s always fun see people to bring in their heifers and to look at the quality of the cattle here in Wyoming,” notes Petsch. “It’s always fun to see those good cattle brought in and then to take them along the way they should be done and see them turn into really good cows.”
Reyes says he likes to develop heifers because many in his center come from his bulls. “Through watching these heifers I can measure my genetics and what I’m doing,” he says. “I can measure the progress, or mistakes, of my breeding program.”