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There are many things to consider when making a decision on whether raising or buying replacement heifers is the best situation for the ranch. These include feed costs, labor availability and costs, environmental factors, genetics, prices, tax implications, etc. It’s not always easy to figure out what might be best – and it may change from one year to another.

Lee Schulz, assistant professor in economics from Iowa State University, says BEEF Magazine did a recent survey that showed about 83 percent of producers hold back heifers to expand and about 37 percent buy heifers additionally.

“There are some combinations of that, since many ranchers retain heifers, as well as buy some. USDA’s survey also showed that about 83 percent hold back heifers,” he comments. “Many people raise their own but still take advantage of opportunities to buy, due to accelerated expansion in recent years and the current cattle cycle.”

  “There have been very strong profits lately, so producers wanted to take advantage of this and expand their herds,” he says.

Making the decision

“It’s not always a very clear cut decision whether to raise or buy replacements. We really have to look closely to see if it really costs us less to raise them than buy them,” Schulz says. “There are significant costs and some risks in developing heifers.”

Of the risks, Schulz says the time between retaining a heifer and getting a payout in the form of a calf is lengthy.

“On the flip side, there is also a bit of risk on the open market in terms of availability,” he continues.

“We went through that in 2013 through 2015, seeing historic high prices for replacement heifers,” he says. “There is some risk in selling heifer calves and then going out in the open market and purchasing bred heifers.”

There are risks and advantages both ways, and producers doesn’t always know which would be best.

Using tools

“We have some tools to help ranchers in these decisions, such as looking at the net present value of those heifers. This investment decision – either raising their own heifers or purchasing them on the open market – is a longer term investment, anticipating getting at least five, six or more calves out of that replacement animal,” Schulz comments.

Producers must consider not only the conditions in the market at the time but also the longer term regarding what the prices and costs are going to be, he says.

“It is very important to budget out that decision, not only today but also going forward into the future. If a rancher is purchasing heifers, they have to look at that multi-year gain potential in genetics and realize it’s not just a one-year investment. The genetic potential will exist over the life of that productive female,” says Schulz.

Sometimes a person can go out and buy genetics that are better in certain aspects than what they already have. , sometimes the genetics they’ve worked many years to create are better suited for the purposes of the ranch, he says.

Raising heifers

“When looking at this decision, in terms of selling heifer calves and purchasing replacements, producers are assuming that they have on-farm feed production and facilities that would not be used if they weren’t being used for stocker production,” Schulz adds.

First, he suggests looking at feed resources. Feed that would be used to develop heifers should be considered at market value.

“But maybe there’s more potential for holding back more females and decreasing culling rate, and perhaps that return would be higher by putting the feed through the cattle instead of selling it,” Schulz says. “There are many factors at play, and each producer must make their own decision.”

He continues, “It’s difficult to give any rule of thumb because there is a lot of variability in expectations of price and costs, not only for the individual operation but also looking forward.”

It’s always a gamble as ranchers try to pencil it out and predict what the costs might be. The more homework they can do, the better off they are and more able to make the right kind of gamble.

“It’s very important to do a lot of sensitivity analysis around the assumptions for price, costs and productivity to look at what is really the best case scenario and what is the worst case scenario,” Schulz comments.  “Ranchers need to really look at where the risks are, in each situation.”

Final choices

Producers are advised to buy bred heifers if it truly costs less to buy them rather than raise them and if they value alternative uses of the money and time spent raising heifers, the reduced need for “heifer” bulls, and if they want to grow their herd faster, with an increased number of productive females sooner.

“It’s also an evolving situation. What might be better one year might not be better in another. Producers need to look at these things each time they try to make this decision,” says Schulz.

Some of the tools provided by economic research and analysis at the various universities can be helpful.

He comments, “We developed several tools in the height of this expansionary phase, and I think they have been used a lot by producers. These can help producers educate themselves on various aspects of this important decision.”

Heather Smith Thomas is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Despite having a complex marketing system, flexibility is what makes the cattle industry so successful, according to an economist from Oklahoma State University.

“When we are talking about cattle and beef markets, the question is what will get produced and how much will get produced,” Darrell Peel told producers at the Nebraska Grazing Conference. “As a producer, we think we can decide what will get produced, but we really don’t. These two questions are answered by the demand-side of the industry.”

“Ultimately, consumers decide what will get produced and how much,” he said.

Controlling resources

What producers can control are the resources that will be used for this production.

“Producers make the decisions on how to allocate those resources amongst alternative uses,” he explained.

The cattle industry is flexible. Cattle can survive on a forage-based diet or a heavily grain-based diet, and anything in between, Peel said.

The market determines the most efficient way to get it done.

“It puts the cattle industry in the middle of everything from a crop standpoint, and in terms of land and forage resources and how they are allocated,” Peel explained. “We have fixed and variable forage resources.”

“Rangeland is a fixed resource and crop production and crop aftermath are variable resources,” he told producers. “Since the cattle industry is the biggest livestock enterprise in the U.S., it falls on cattle producers to determine how to utilize and change in response to changing conditions.”

“If we had a bigger sheep industry, the way these resources are used would be different,” he noted.

Crops produced

Corn, soybeans, hay and wheat account for 86 percent of the crop production in the U.S.

“What happens in these markets signals what will happen with other crops,” he said.

If corn acres increase, soybeans typically follow, he said. Wheat acres are declining, and hay production has been significantly down during the last decade.

“Cattle inventory was down also, so now that it is rebuilding. It will be interesting to see if hay acres also increase,” he said.

When corn underwent a significant increase in acres several years ago, some pastureland was tilled and put into crop acres.

“The question now is to what extent is that a long-term or permanent change? There was lots of fence torn out, ponds filled in and expensive terraces built for crop production. That doesn’t revert back instantaneously,” he said.

Between 2007 and 2012, Peel says 9.2 million acres were also pulled from the Conservation Rescue Program (CRP) and put into crop production. Little was put into pasture.

“There are lots of things happening regionally in terms of how the big picture has changed over time,” he said. “How will we utilize the land resources and how will that apply to cattle production, since it is the biggest variable factor that has to change in response to those kind of incentives?”

Cattle advantages

Peel sees Nebraska cattle producers having an advantage.

Between 2007 and 2012, not much change occurred in the number of acres of pastureland in the state. Cropland accounts for 20 millions acres, while rangeland is 23 million acres.

“Nebraska is unique,” Peel said. “There is no place else that has so many major cropping areas so close to rangeland.”

In fact, Peel sees the ability to use forage and grain to finish cattle as a factor that makes beef competitive with alternative meats.

“There are 4 million acres of rangeland in this country that don't have a better use than cattle production,” he stated. “Can we take for granted that we will continue to have a cattle industry in this country?”

“I think we can because cattle eat grass and we don’t have anything else that does. If we had to compete solely on other things, we probably wouldn’t win that,” he explained.

“We have to compete against all other uses of land and production of that land, without using those forage resources that can’t be used for other things,” he continued. “We have the ability to adjust, which is an advantage and an opportunity, but it means that we can’t sit still. Changes in the market conditions outside of beef production means we have to make changes to this industry. We have the flexibility to be more responsive to those changes.”

“Ultimately, economics will force us to utilize that flexibility. The question is whether we do it willingly, or wait until after the market beats us up to get the point,” Peel stated.

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Most producers think about preconditioning their cattle but wonder if its profitable.

“I think the real question is if there is enough premium to pull it off, based on what it costs,” according to Dee Griffin, University of Nebraska-Lincoln veterinarian. 

But after keeping track of expenses for a number of years, Griffin said he has found preconditioning pays, whether the producer gets paid a premium for doing it or not, just because of the additional weight gain in the feeder cattle.

Overall, Griffin said preconditioning calves can net about $40 of profit per head.

“The longer we keep them, the more we may make, but there will be some risk of sickness,” he said. “On the upside, by retaining ownership and preconditioning these calves, we will have some good cattle that a feedlot will want to buy. It can help us develop a long-term relationship with a feedyard.”

Healthy cattle

Producing healthy cattle requires producers to stay on top of their game. Griffin shared a story about his own father and the cattle he produced.

“My father had great cattle at home, and they were protected and isolated from other cattle,” he said.

Once, Griffin was approached by one of the feeders who purchased these cattle, and he relayed to Griffin that his father produced good cattle, but once the calves reached the feedlot, they were plagued with sickness, and the death rate was too high.

“He would vaccinate the cows, but the calves were only vaccinated for blackleg,” he shared. “That’s one of the reasons preconditioning vaccinations are so important. We weaned 4,000 calves at the University feedlot last year. Only six of those died.”

“If we take care of the cattle correctly, they will be healthy,” he stated.

Vaccination

Griffin outlined the importance of developing a good vaccination program and talking to a veterinarian about how to apply these disease prevention protocols.

“To get a good immune response, we have to give the calf an effective vaccine properly,” he said.

In one study, calves were vaccinated for IBR with the nasal spray, followed by an injectible booster shot. The calves receiving this treatment had a five percent death loss, compared with a 25 percent death loss in the calves that were not vaccinated.

“The bottom line is there are more than 250 vaccines we can give calves, but only about 10 percent of those are worth taking home, and none of them are worth taking home if they aren’t used properly,” he said.

“If we don’t follow up on these vaccines with a booster, we are only getting partial or short-term immunity in our calves,” he added.

Control IBR

Producers also need to use their management skills to control outbreaks of infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR).

“IBR is very contagious,” Griffin said. “Even with an effective vaccine, sometimes the calf will still die. Many times it is from bacterial pneumonia.”

“Pasteurella kills calves. None of the vaccines are as good as they need to be, and most all of them need a booster,” he added.

Griffin hopes more can be done to control IBR in the future.

“They found a genetic link about 2.5 years ago to respiratory disease in cattle,” he said. “It is looking more promising all the time that they will eventually find the genetic marker to prevent respiratory problems in cattle.”

In the meantime, Griffin said it's important for producers to keep in mind that the vaccine they give today may not be effective for at least 30 days.

“At one time, we used to give shots four weeks before weaning,” he said. “We have now moved that back to six to eight weeks prior to weaning, and it has cut the sickness rate in half.”

Add an implant

“While the calf is in the chute, give it a Ralgro implant. It will increase the calf’s weaning weight at least five percent, putting more money in your pocket,” Griffin said. “If we want all-natural cattle, we better have an extra $150 sitting on the table, because that is what we will lose due to not implanting our calves.”

“Implants work, and they make us money,” he stated.

“Last year, we had the lowest cattle numbers I have seen in my lifetime,” he shared. “Despite that, we produced more beef than when we had 14 million more cattle than we have today. Implants are significant.”

Griffin also noted, “Implants do change the flavor of beef, and taste tests have been done that have verified this, but they are still an important part of beef production.”

Sanitize syringes and equipment

While preconditioning programs are important, Griffin also cautioned producers about handling vaccines safely.

It is important to rock the bottle easily back and forth, instead of shaking it. Shaking certain vaccines can release toxic endotoxins that can make cattle sick. The cell fragments from dead bacteria can rupture if the bottle is shaken too vigorously.

Keeping supplies, especially syringes and vaccine guns, clean is critical.

“Never use disinfectant or soap to clean syringes. It will kill the vaccine and render it ineffective,” Griffin explained.

“Syringes and vaccine guns should be cleaned with hot, boiling water, wiped clean and put away until the next use,” he said.

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Foot rot is an infectious condition that causes swelling, heat and inflammation in the foot, resulting in severe lameness. The swelling and lameness can come on gradually, but more often, it appears suddenly.

Andrew Niehaus, assistant professor of Farm Animal Surgery at Ohio State University, says the bacteria causing foot rot are generally present in the environment. The animals most at risk are those living in an unsanitary environment where there is a lot of manure. 

“We tend to see more cases in wet, muddy conditions.  Feet are constantly wet, which makes the skin softer, and it becomes easier for certain pathogens to penetrate that skin barrier,” he says. 

Any little nick, scrape or puncture around the hoof, heel or between the toes may open the way for opportunistic invaders.

Occurrence of foot rot

Even during a dry summer some cases appear, especially if cattle have to go through a boggy area to get to water or wade into the mud surrounding a pond when getting a drink. Mud mixed with manure make perfect conditions for foot rot.

“The organisms that cause foot rot are anaerobic, which means they thrive without oxygen,” Niehaus says. 

If the foot is down in the mud, there’s not much oxygen, and this makes perfect habitat for those pathogens. If cattle are wading through mud or standing in a muddy feedlot, they are at higher risk.

“The two organisms implicated in foot rot are Dichlobacter nodosus and Fusobacterium necrophorum. Both of these are anaerobic. They are somewhat symbiotic in that they may work together. One of them enters the break in the skin, and then the other one comes along and helps perpetuate the infection,” says Niehaus.

These bacteria multiply and cause further death and destruction of tissue in that area.  This leads to more anaerobic conditions as the tissue dies, which helps facilitate the infection in a vicious cycle.

“The early stages of disease are often seen in the interdigital space between the toes, and it may later involve the heel area, as well,” Niehaus explains. “As it becomes worse, swelling may spread up the leg, with noticeable swelling above the hoof.” 

Inflammation and swelling of the affected tissues are a hallmark of this disease.  The swelling and lameness may be similar to that of an animal suffering from a fracture or snakebite.

Diagnosis

It is important to have a proper diagnosis, because several other things can look like foot rot. 

“It could be a fracture, a joint infection due to progressive infection from an ulcer in the bottom of the foot or a puncture wound. There may be swelling around the area of the coronary band in those instances, and it may break out there and drain.  Those are some of the differentials we should consider, when we see a swollen foot and a very lame animal,” he explains. 

Lameness could even be due to a nail or sharp stick embedded in the foot.

When making a diagnosis, it is important to look closely at the foot. 

“I like to put the animal on a tilt table if it’s been brought to the hospital. On a farm or ranch, it could be put into a chute and the foot lifted with a rope. Out in a pasture, the animal could be roped and cast. We need a good look at that foot,” he says.

“With foot rot, the diagnosis is usually based on the fact the animal has a lot of pain in the interdigital space.  It has a necrotic look and a very characteristic foul smell. If we ‘floss’ the interdigital space with a piece of twine or towel, pulling it back and forth, it is very painful for the animal. I frequently use this technique to make my diagnosis. Even just touching the affected area may be enough to elicit a painful reaction from the animal,” says Niehaus.

Treatment

“The best way to cure the infection is to get the animals out of wet, dirty conditions.  Some cases will resolve on their own. We can hasten recovery with systemic antibiotics and local treatment like oxytetracycline bandage foot wraps,” Niehaus explains. 

“We can treat it locally by putting something like LA-200 on a gauze pad, wrap it and hold that next to the affected area. There are several good antibiotics labeled for foot rot, so we usually give the animal a systemic antibiotic, as well,” says Niehaus.

If caught early, the infection can usually be cleared up quickly.

“That’s another hallmark of this disease. It usually clears up pretty quickly if treated soon after it begins,” he says. 

By the second day following treatment, there should be noticeable improvement and less lameness. It may take longer if the animal was not seen in the beginning and treatment isn’t started until after it has been lame awhile.

Some cases clear up on their own, but others can become severe if neglected and may progress into the joint. 

“As it spreads through the soft tissue, it may go into the joint, as well.  Then it becomes more difficult to treat,” he says.

Once the infection gets into the joints, it starts destroying the cartilage.  Even if the rancher can eventually clean up the infection, which is much more difficult once it’s in a joint, they still may deal with an arthritic joint. 

Niehaus says, “That animal will still be lame, and we are faced with either slaughtering the animal or possibly amputating the toe – depending on the circumstances.   It pays to treat foot rot early.”

Heather Smith Thomas is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Casper – Nearly 100 women from across the state gathered in Casper on Nov. 12-13 at the Wyoming Women in Ag Annual Symposium, an event that focused on the agriculture issues women face on their farms and ranches.

With a full day of educational sessions on Nov. 13, the event kicked off on Nov. 12 with an evening reception and presentations by Wyoming Livestock Roundup Livestock Field Services Director Curt Cox, UW Extension Beef Specialist Steve Paisley and Greg Faxon of Zoetis.

The trio looked at selecting bulls, utilizing ultrasound in selecting heifers and the genetic tools available for selection.

EPDs

In the past decades, Cox noted that expected progeny differences (EPDs) have become increasingly important in making decisions when selecting bulls.

“The foundation of the EPD is the history of that animal’s pedigree and what his ancestors have been known to produce,” Cox explained. “We put that on top of the performance of the individual and information collected from his progeny to get these numbers.”

He added, “Since 2010, the Angus Association uses genomic test results to give more accuracy to the EPDs.”

While EPDs vary between breeds, Cox noted that it is important to understand what each number means in making comparisons between sires. Maternal EPDs, he commented, can be particularly useful and are often overshadowed by carcass and growth data.

Breed-specific data

“The EPDs that the Angus Association qualifies as maternal are heifer production (HP), calving ease maternal (CEM), maternal milk (Milk), herds (MkH), daughters (MkD), mature height (MH) and cow energy value ($EN),” Cox said.

Similarly, the Hereford Association utilizes slightly different numbers, including maternal milk (MM), maternal calving ease (MCE), udder (UDDR) and teat (TEAT). They also utilize an index combining both milk and growth (M&G).

Lastly, Cox looked at the Red Angus Association’s dataset, which includes many similar EPDs.

“They look at milk (MILK), maintenance energy (ME) and a dollar value associated with the amount of energy needed to feed the cow,” he said. “Higher values mean more efficient females.”

The Red Angus Association also uniquely evaluates stayability (STAY), or the ability of the cow to stay in the herd for six years and produce a calf each year.

Carcass quality

While EPDs provide one tool for making bull selection decisions, Paisley also noted that ultrasound provides an option for heifer selection that can have rapid, remarkable impacts.

“As we think about our ability to adapt and change, compared to our meat competitors, we are at a disadvantage. We have a long generation interval,” he said. “Using carcass ultrasounds, we can try to use our crystal ball to make better selection decisions earlier in the life cycle, whether that is the bull or the female.”

Ultrasound, he noted, is very valuable and can be collected for both males and females. In addition, data provides a selection tool for heifers that goes beyond phenotype.

Ultrasound process

In ultrasounding cattle, Paisley noted that a 17.2 centimeter probe is utilized to measure ribeye area, backfat thickness and intramuscular fat.

“Our machine automatically traces the ribeye and measures fat depth, all chute-side,” Paisley said. “We can generate the information quickly with ultrasound, and it is important because we can use it to measure yield grade.”

  Ribeye area and backfat are measured between the 12th and 13th rib, and intramuscular fat is measured by laying the probe along the loin muscle.

“Typically, we want 1.1 square inches of ribeye per 100 pounds of body weight,” Paisley said. “When we see four percent intramuscular fat, that is low choice.”

Dramatic changes

In one ranch example, Paisley noted that ribeye area was 0.928 square inches per 100 pounds in 2010 on a particular group of heifers, which he described as “an extremely light-muscled set.”

“We selected the bottom 20 percent to cull and started mating different selections for the bulls,” he explained. “By 2013, when we ultrasounded the same replacement heifers, we had moved to an average of 1.07 square inches per hundredweight.”

“By removing the bottom and selecting bulls, we made a change,” Paisley summarized. “We can make dramatic changes quickly.”

Mindful selection

In selecting for larger ribeyes, Paisley cautioned producers against always selecting for larger ribeyes.

“Bigger is not always better in the cowherd,” he said. “We probably don’t want an extremely heavily-muscled cow. The maintenance is higher, they require more feed, and the tendency to breed back is lower.”

As one criterion for selection, however, data collected from ultrasound can be useful and beneficial.

DNA data

With EPDs and carcass data available, Faxon also emphasized that DNA technology has developed dramatically in the last five years and provides newer, more modern tools.

“We have been able to find DNA markers and identify carriers of diseases and traits like horned or polled,” he said. “As we have gone along, we have advanced what we know about these markers in animals.”

With over 50,000 markers in the genetic code, Faxon said that the genome is a wealth of information. He mentioned that DNA data provides the equivalent of collecting information from 14 of a bull’s daughters.

“We can also double the accuracy for EPDs,” he continued. “We have broken the analysis out into maternal, growth and efficiency, and carcass traits. Each has a slightly different impact.”

“Heifer selection was entirely based on phenotype for many years,” Faxon said. “We looked at what the heifer expressed and what we saw. That was it. This can provide more information.”

Quick turn-around

DNA tests can also provide the opportunity to make rapid changes in cattle.

“In one herd of two-year-old heifers, and we made an impact on them in a single generation,” Faxon said.

Looking at just one trait – marbling – as an example, the set of heifers averaged a score of 36 on a one-to-100 scale. On the scale, 100 represents the highest score.

“They tested those heifers and culled the bottom 20 percent,” he said. “That raised the average to 44.”

After selecting a bull in the top one percent for carcass traits, Faxon commented, “The offspring from those heifers hit 72. In a single generation, we were able to double the score.”

“In today’s world, we cannot affect things we cannot measure,” he continued. “We now have the technology to measure genetics and make massive changes. In a single generation, if we know the foundation of a single sire and dam, we can make the best decisions with the knowledge we have.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..