Replacement Heifer Development

By Patti Wilson Contributing Editor 

As La Niña appears to be making a welcome comeback, U.S. cattlemen are preparing to rebuild a depleted cow herd. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent semiannual report confirmed a shocking drop in cattle numbers. All cattle and calves were listed at 89.3 million head, the lowest number in eight years. The beef cow herd number was even more dramatic, resting at a 61-year low.

At the February Cattle Industry Convention, Kevin Good of CattleFax predicted a further 5 percent  drop in production this year as compared to 2022. As of yet, there has been no sign of heifer retention. Look out when it comes; it is likely to be a flood.

Along with selection of replacement heifers and post-drought grass management, a health program that maximizes your heifers’ long term fertility is imperative. This will be an opportunity not only to revitalize the genetics in your herd, but to reboot a more vigorous herd health protocol for your business.

I visited with Joe Gillespie, DVM, of Boehringer Ingelheim (BI) about the new BI platform, Healthy Heifers. The program deals with the replenishing of cow herds as more adequate precipitation returns to the country.

Platform Particulars

Gillespie explained a holistic approach the company has taken to aid cattle raisers in re-establishing herds, featuring heifer calves that have been raised with optimum management. Their goal is to create longevity in the productive cow herd.

All aspects of herd health are touched upon – nutrition, health, reproduction and genetics. Each creates value. Retaining cows that are healthy into late maturity is an important aspect of profitability. Heifer replacement is the No. 1 cost in running a cow herd, and this program is designed to aim cows to a longer, productive life.

Gillespie said that heifer health has an impact on this important component; any problem up front in a female’s life will have an effect on her longevity in the herd. He emphasized that nutrition enables heifers to grow to an appropriate weight and cycle in a timely manner. Conception rates rise with the right rations, as does retention of those pregnancies. Heifers are “not challenged with having that first calf.”

He highly recommended a modified-live virus for replacements, saying BI’s Express FP gives value creation. “Any company offering a modified-live prebreeding vaccine has an important tool,” Gillespie said. “Vaccines should be given 30 to 60 days prior to breeding.”

Parasite control is important, as well. Gillespie recommends Long Range, a dewormer that delivers 100 to 150 days of extended release control. The injectable product limits roundworms, lungworms, grubs and mites. It is manufactured specifically for grass cattle.

The beauty of this product is its ability to break parasitic life cycles and reduce pasture infestations. He explained that conventional products have a 28-day range of effectiveness on internal parasites, which is a short duration and hard to manage with pasture cattle.

Additionally, time of application is key to successful product use. For example, external parasitic eggs hatch during a break in cold winter weather. He warned that heavy winter coats on cattle can keep skin adequately warm enough to facilitate lice egg hatching, even in freezing temperatures. Lice tend to hide out on cattle in the heat of summer, being somewhat dormant on ears and front ends. Fall and winter weather brings on activity that needs attention to prevent stress and discomfort. This stress may be a challenge to developing heifers.

He also advised working with a nutritionist to determine appropriate rations. Trace minerals must not be overlooked, and mineral supplements should be available at all times.

About Stress

We all know that stress can take many forms. One often misunderstood stressor is a change in ration or feedstuffs. Gillespie advised that changes in diet should take place over a series of weeks. Turning cattle out on lush grass in the spring is one scenario where gradual acclimation is not possible. This poses a distinct disadvantage to bred heifers, a significant number of which may abort early pregnancies after being AI’d in a dry lot. It’s recommended that bred yearling heifers be turned out to grass fewer than five days or more than 45 days after breeding. This avoids the early critical time when embryos are first attaching to the uterine wall. After 45 days, embryonic attachment is relatively stable and ready to endure some stress. Even though turning out our heifers on green springtime pasture seems a relief, it has to be handled carefully for the sake of pregnancies.

Other stressors can include hauling to grass, mixing with other heifers and general acclimation to new facilities. Water tank access, insect irritation and bad weather may be added to the list of possibilities.

About Dr. Gillespie

Dr. Joe Gillespie

Many thanks go to Joe Gillespie for input with this article. The Poteet, Texas, native graduated from Texas A&M with three majors, including his DVM. Moving to McCook, Neb., he and his wife, Julie, raised three children; the whole group competes in working cow horse competition.

His expertise includes all classes of bovines. Gillespie is an astute businessman, as well, being former chief operations officer of a large dairy group and developing a milk processing plant on site at one of the large dairies he served in the McCook area.

Working with multiple species throughout his career has made him a valuable asset to BI, where he has been employed since 2018 as a professional services veterinarian. He focuses on animal health, reproduction and continuous improvement to create business profitability.

Credits to Research

Extensive research has been cited for this article, much of it on the effects of cattle and breeding stock. Along with a list of scientists too numerous to mention are these institutions: University of Illinois Department of Animal Science and the Iowa State University Department of Animal Science.

At the end of the day and after digesting the academic research, it’s time for cattle producers to decide what is best for the health and profitability of our herds. Let’s be thankful for those folks who run the tests and crunch the numbers; we can take substantial advantage for our own benefit.