Heifer management: Whittier discusses female programsWritten by Saige Albert
Whitter spoke to the UW Animal Science Department in Laramie on Feb. 24.
“We know the beef industry is made up of many different demographics, but increasing focus on heifer management may be right,” said Whittier. “There has been success in developing and marketing replacement heifers and reducing the costs of the replacement business to make herd more productive and profitable.”
After a meeting at JBS in Greeley, Colo. in late Fall 2011, Whittier noted that Tom Brink of Five Rivers Cattle Feeding listed 10 reasons to expose more heifers in the upcoming years, from which he developed six primary opportunities that are worthwhile when looking at heifer management.
“Cattle prices, whether it be fed cattle or calves, are at record highs,” said Whittier. “With that, bred cow prices have also begun to increase.”
He explained that CattleFax data predicts bred cow prices for 2012 will increase 25 percent above 2011 prices, indicating a huge increase in value.
“One of the kickers is, not only have bred cow prices been increasing, but salvage cow prices have been extremely high,” he continued. “I’m guessing that Wyoming and Colorado ranchers have seen a great time to cash in some chips on cows that may not be as functional.”
Whittier cautioned, however, that it will be a balancing act to not turn things over too quickly.
“It will be a push-pull mechanism, but I think we all agree that the cow herd will expand,” he added. “The purchasing power of exporters allows them to come in and purchase our quality product.”
Whittier recognized that marketing strategies for cattle have also helped to increase profits.
“We’ve started marketing cattle on a value-based system, and that is creating change,” explained Whittier. “When quality is rewarded, we tend to make changes in that direction.”
He noted that cattle marketed on alternative methods, such as forward contracts or specialty programs, have increased substantially in the last 15 years. Today, nearly 70 percent of cattle are marketed on a value-based system, whereas program cattle 15 years ago accounted for only 30 percent of total cattle sold.
“We put a system together to based on quality,” he added, “and the cattle have begun to change.”
EPDs and genomic data
“As we move forward in our evaluation of cattle, the EPDs actually do predict the value of animals and his or her offspring,” said Whittier.
He noted that the inclusion of EPDs for reproductive value and fertility have made large strides.
“One of the criteria that has been easy to manage and measure is the impact of scrotal circumference on overall fertility,” said Whittier. “In the late ‘80s, when scrotal circumference began to be selected for, we were cognizant that it had value and would change fertility.”
He also added that heifer pregnancy rates have increased as a result, saying, “My opinion is that, as these tools have been developed and reined in, we have been able to make changes in the industry that have impact.”
Genomics also provides opportunities, especially when combined with traditional systems.
“By using the genomic information with our traditional systems, I predict that there are even greater strides to come,” said Whittier, noting that genomics systems are fairly simple to utilize and provide benefits.
He added that progeny testing will always be important, but utilizing genomics can help producers cut costs.
“Increasing the reliability of information early in the game to make decisions and decrease costs is important,” he explained. “The cost to prove a bull without genomic tools is much greater.”
However useful, the system isn’t perfect yet, and Whittier pointed out that breed specificity of genomic patterns is a downfall. He remarked that improvement can be expected.
Heifer management systems are being re-examined with a different perspective, according to Whittier.
Whittier marked feed cost increases as a motivator in improving management strategies, and said that heifer development programs have adapted from feedlot systems.
“Heifers may never come into the feedlot in the development phase,” said Whittier, who added that research shows heifer development systems can be effective at lower target weights.
“In one study, they developed heifers to 55 percent rather than 65 percent, and there was no difference in overall fertility,” he explained. “That’s largely because we’ve changed cattle, and, as a result, puberty is not as big a factor as in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.”
“Heterosis is a real thing, and it concerns me that the industry has forgotten and put this aside in some ways,” commented Whittier. “The real benefit has been seen in combining those crossbred cattle up to 23 to 25 percent.”
He cited studies that noted a 25 percent increase in efficiency and increased longevity and probably of survival can be achieved in crossbreeding cattle.
However, Whittier also cautioned that implementing heterosis isn’t simple and may have unexpected results because of the complexity of genetics.
“I believe in heterosis, in particular in the fertility traits,” remarked Whittier. “It shouldn’t be overlooked.”
While Whittier noted that timed AI or synchronization programs aren’t “quite ripe,” meaning they aren’t fully developed, they are improving.
“They are moving in that direction of a system that allows the predicting of ovulation and selecting gender, depending on the objectives of the herd,” he explained.
One study identified by Whittier saw 46 percent of cows that were not cycling, according to progesterone assays, were successfully bred after implementing a synchronization program.
“Exposure to progesterone may have some merit as we move forward in heifer management,” he said.
Whittier also cited gender selection with sexed semen, saying it provides opportunities to achieve herd goals as well. Though studies were primarily done to select for steers, based on their advantage in the markets, Whittier predicted that they could be applied to heifer selection.
“The study shows that conception rates of sorted semen are not what conventional semen is,” said Whittier, but an increase in the desired sex of calves may offset that decrease in fertilization.
“I don’t know where these things will go,” commented Whittier, “but we’ve got some opportunities educationally with heifer management and development.”
Whittier gives cattle outlook
“The entire cattle beef focus right now is pretty darn good,” said CSU Extension Beef Specialist Jack Whittier in a presentation on Feb. 24.
Whittier addressed the UW Animal Science Department in a seminar on heifer development, but he noted that opportunities exist across the board for cattle producers.
“It is just amazing to me what U.S. beef production and U.S. farmers in general are able to do,” commented Whittier. “Even though cow numbers are down, the output of beef has not changed that dramatically. Certainly there is a decline, but we see that as opportunity.”
However, he didn’t neglect the challenges that face the industry.
“There are some challenges, and volatility is apparent,” said Whittier. “Though prices are high, margins are slim because the cost of inputs right now.”