Developing for a niche: Kit West promotes replacement heifersWritten by Gayle Smith
The average size of a beef herd in the United States is only 40 head, and as Kit West of Chugwater read those words he saw an opportunity for himself.
“Producers with ranches that small only need to keep a few replacement heifers each year,” he says. “Where they need so few, it is not very economical to grow their own. That is where I can fill a niche.”
The result of seeing that niche is Heifer.Pro, a company started by West and his family that allows ranchers to purchase quality replacement heifers in any number from one on up. The ranchers can also bring heifers to West, and he will grow and breed them at his facility.
West is a third-generation rancher who lives and works on the family ranch near Chugwater. He became interested in growing replacement heifers while seeking ways to expand the family’s ranching operation.
“We are in a transitional phase right now,” he explains. “My dad and one of his brothers want to retire from the operation, and we’re trying to keep our operation stable and expand it, and still provide them with enough money to retire.”
West says he and his family actually started raising and purchasing replacement heifers to grow and sell a few years ago, and since they have done quite well with those they’ve decided to expand the business. West created a website, heifer.pro, where he not only advertises what he has for sale, but also allows other ranchers to advertise their heifers for sale at no cost to them.
“I advertise the website in most of the major agriculture newspapers, so it provides ranchers who list heifers for sale on the site free advertising,” he explains. “It is my way of helping the industry increase their cow numbers, and a way for me to market the heifers I have for sale.”
West said that, ultimately, his goal is to build a small social network of like-minded producers who can utilize the heifers he produces.
“Right now, most of the ranchers I work with are here in Wyoming, but I am starting to get some interest from producers in other states like Montana and Kansas,” he comments.
The West family cattle operation is comprised of quality Red Angus and Black Angus cattle.
“I hope to expand the number of bred heifers I have available, and be able to get into more breeds,” notes West. “I look for lots of 20 to 25 heifers, grow them, A.I. them to a quality bull of their own breed and sell them as bred heifers.”
West has a local A.I. technician, Kim Cullen, who pelvic measures and evaluates the heifers when he purchases them.
“Anything that will not make a quality cow is turned into a feeder calf. Kim does the heat detection and A.I.s them,” he explains. “If there are 100 head of heifers, she can synchronize them and have them bred up within a couple of days. About 60 to 65 percent of them will be bred, while the rest will be bred using cleanup bulls.”
When selecting heifers, West says he looks for healthy heifers in body condition scores of five to seven.
“I don’t like to purchase heifers with a body condition score over eight. They are just too fat, and when I put them on grass they won’t gain like they should,” he says. “The heifers with a body condition score of five to seven perform the best. I want to see them thrive on grass.”
West also looks for larger-framed heifers with very feministic characteristics, a nice udder and a good disposition. He says he aims to grow heifers that will weigh around 925 to 975 pounds in October after they are bred, and mature at about 1,100 pounds.
Most of the heifers West sells go to smaller operations with 200 head or less, but he can accommodate larger ranching operations.
“If a customer needs to purchase some heifers, I don’t require them to take a set amount. We have corrals we can set up out in the pasture, and they can just go and pick what they want. If they only need a few replacement heifers, then they can just purchase a few. We can work with producers who have small or large operations,” he explains.
In addition to raising and selling replacement heifers, West also grows replacements for ranchers. He asks most of the larger ranch operations to bring a minimum of 25 head.
“If I have several groups with smaller numbers, I would have to work something out as far as cleanup bulls if they are different breeds. We use Red Angus and Black Angus low birthweight bulls for cleanup,” he notes.
West is also stringent on what he will accept for the heifer development program.
“I evaluate the heifers to make sure they are good quality and will perform well,” he says. “They have to be some pretty high quality heifers to be in the program.”
For the heifers that are in the heifer development program, Kit manages disease by making sure they are Bangs vaccinated. The heifers are also tested for BVD PI when they are pregnancy tested.
The heifers are pregnancy checked by blood, because it eliminates the false positives and is more precise.
“We have a laboratory in Laramie we use for pregnancy testing,” says West. “For 20 dollars we can also have DNA samples taken to make sure the heifers have no defects in their genetic makeup.”
The heifers can be bred to calve anytime from January through April. If the heifers are bred for May calving or later, West says they are bred using natural service.
“The heifers will be on grass by then, so it is much tougher to get them in to A.I.,” he says. The natural service bulls are leased from Cullen and are based on Genex semen.
West says ranchers can take possession of the heifers at any point.
“Some may want to take their heifers home sooner if they have earlier calving,” he explains. On the other hand, he also takes in cattle for producers, and can put the heifers on grass. “In May, I can put these heifers on grass and run them the rest of the summer and deliver them back to the producer in mid-October.”