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Cull or keep after the first breeding season?

published: April 22nd 2016
by: Martha Hollida Garrett
The open heifer—she can be the future of your herd or a continued management liability throughout her tenure in the cowherd. Research points out that if she fails to breed the first time, then you can expect to have this battle repeatedly. A live calf continues to be the number one economic factor towards a ranch’s bottom line, so this underlines the added importance of this initial breeding, as it serves as key indicator for the future.
A lifetime study conducted at the USDA experiment station in Montana, over the course of 23 years included 1,589 replacement heifers exposed to bulls. Of that number, 266 heifers were palpated open at the end of the first breeding season.  Those open heifers were retained for four years and during that period there were 1,006 opportunities to become bred, but only 551 calves resulted. This is a 54.9% average yearly calf crop. 
L.R. Sprott, a past Texas A&M Extension beef cattle specialist, found similar results with a study based in Texas. Eight different herds, representing close to 800 head of open heifers were studied. The group was bred in the spring over the course of 90 days. The resulting open heifers were held over and rebred in the fall. Only 58% became pregnant in the fall.
The importance of these numbers cannot be overlooked from a financial standpoint.
“Every minute you have an open female it is costing you money. You essentially are losing not just a calf, but dollars,” stresses Dr. Jason Cleere, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension beef cattle specialist.
While it’s tempting to keep that “good open heifer” and give her another try, a producer needs to consider if they want that repeated breeding issue each season, because based on research she or at least half of her contemporaries will share this trait. That’s a management decision, as it requires time and money.
It is also important to note, those females that fail to breed in the first cycle and do breed later almost always wean a lighter calf—again, less money in your pocket.
Cleere says that it is important to have your open heifers at their best going into that first breeding season. A 13-17 month old heifer needs to be at 60-65% of their mature weight.  
“Most producers do not have scales, but they can use the visual tool of scoring by body condition. An open heifer needs to be on a plane of nutrition that will have her at a Body Condition Score (BCS) of 5-6 at breeding time,” he describes adding that you should breed these heifers, 30-45 days or so ahead of the mature cows, so that if you decide to keep her and breed her again, she falls into the same breeding cycle as the mature females.
Another critical component of successfully integrating young replacement females into the herd is palpating at the end of the breeding period. It is even more costly to wait till the last trimester or calving season and then determine how many are open.
“If you breed a heifer at 13-17 months, depending upon breed type, then you are palpating in that 16-19 month old range. If she is open, you have the option of rebreeding her, marketing her, or sending her to the feedlot,” says Cleere.
At this age, as she will fall in the 30 months and under category and could still be fed for the “Choice” beef market. The grading system change that was made several years ago impacts this market greatly, as the “B” maturity carcasses, which are those over 30 months of age, are far less likely to be graded Choice.
Another limited option, according to Cleere, is the grass fed market.
“While this is a very limited market, these heifers can be a good fit for many of these programs. Based on the specifics of a grass fed program, the seller can often receive a premium over traditional marketing methods,” describes Cleere, adding that it takes some legwork to find these, but it can be profitable.
The open heifer represents your future, but she can also be your added labor and expense, depending if she breeds during the first breeding season.  May-be it’s time to not make excuses for her and cut your losses early.

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