When it comes to breeding your show heifers, there are several things to consider. Breeding decisions are important since you want to make a profit. In today’s post we will address three of the basics of breeding heifers you need to consider before breeding your heifers. (Stay tuned for Part 2, which will soon follow!)
AI or Natural Service?
The first decision you must make is whether to Artificially Inseminate (AI) your show heifer or to use a bull. Both methods are beneficial, but there are a few things to consider. If you only have one heifer or maybe a few others, you probably do not have to own a bull. Bulls sometimes can cause more headache that they are worth. Be prepared to spend time fixing fence after your bull decides he wants to visit your neighbor’s cows. If this is the case, AI breeding might be the method of choice. AI breeding has several benefits. These include the following:
1) You can breed to a proven, popular bull that will increase the value of the offspring.
2) You can choose the bulls based on his qualities and characteristics that would complement those of the heifers you intend to breed, individualizing the choice for each heifer.
3) It’s one less mouth to feed.
4) Many times it is cheaper than owning a bull.
Sometimes you have a heifer that you just can’t catch in heat to breed her via AI. Maybe you are new to the cattle industry and aren’t certain about the signs of heat. (Check out this video that explains heat detection.) Or maybe your heifer is one of those that has silent heats. (Ohhhh…how these females frustrate me!) This is when the foolproof method of bull breeding comes into play. The bull ALWAYS knows when she is in heat and will take care of it. It’s kind of his job.
Pay attention to the EPDs.
Next, before breeding heifers you need to evaluate the EPDs of bulls you want to consider. EPDs, or Expected Progeny Differences, predict traits in offspring. EPDs are scientific predictions of what to expect in the offspring when you mate two animals. The bull’s EPDs need to compliment those of your heifer to help ensure you will have a live calf in nine months.
Every breed association has its own EPD system developed from data. When breeding heifers, the first trait I look at is birth weight and/or calving ease. While I do want a calf that will hit the ground growing, my biggest concern is getting a live calf with a live momma. You can also study the EPDs of your heifer. This will help you decide on a bull. For example, if your heifer has a high birthweight, you want to use a bull that has a lower than average birthweight. If your heifer has a low birthweight, you may be able to use a bull that isn’t quite as low on his birthweight EPD, but I’d still caution you to stay below average.
Once you select a bull with the appropriate CED (calving ease direct) and birthweight EPD, you can start to look at other traits. Keep in mind that the CED is a measure of calving ease with first calf heifers only. This EPD has been calculated using only data from first calf heifers, therefore it’s only appropriate to use it as a predictor of calving ease in in first calf heifers, not necessarily mature cows.
Every breed association’s EPDs are different. The chart below, as an example, represents EPD averages for Maine Anjou bulls, as well as the score for Maine Anjou bulls that are in the top 10% and top 25% of the breed for that particular characteristic.
Based on this chart, If I wanted to use a Purebred Maine Anjou bull for a show heifer, I would look for bulls that are in the top 10-20% for CED and BW. In other words, the closer to an 11.6 CED and a -1.0 BW, the better. For a full description of EPD terminology, please see this resource by Select Sires.
Before you make your final decision, evaluate the physical appearance of the bull. I have seen bulls that look fantastic on paper, yet they look absolutely TERRIBLE in the pasture. Select a bull with good structure and appearance to complement the heifer. Check out “Beef Sire Selection: Put a Powerhouse in Your Pasture” for more information.
Check that BCS.
If you haven’t been around cattle long, you are probably scratching your head: “What in the world is BCS?” BCS is body condition score. In other words, how much fat and conditioning does your heifer have on her body. BCS is rated on a scale of 1-9, with 1 being extremely skinny and 9 being overly obese. According to research, females that are in the range of 1-4 have a difficult time conceiving and maintaining a growing fetus due to the lack of nutrition. These females will also be less likely to cycle properly which can cause breeding issues. On the flip side, females that fall in the 8-9 score are also more likely to have problems conceiving and fail to cycle correctly. These obese females may also have problems with labor (dystocia) if and when they are bred.
In other words, you want to try and keep your heifer in the 5-7 BCS range. This helps you achieve optimal reproductive efficiency.
For more in depth information on BCS of beef cattle, check out this research from Virginia Tech.
Consider Pelvic Measurement.
Though I have found it’s not that common among producers that sell show heifers, pelvic measuring is a selection tool that we use religiously at the Silver Barn. There are mixed reviews about the value of pelvic measuring and, to be honest, if someone has made a big investment in a show heifer and hauled her to the shows all season, he/she probably doesn’t want to have to cull the heifer based on a small pelvic measurement. The showman will instead likely take a risk and breed her to an easy-calving bull. Understandable. But keep in mind, you will be passing that small pelvis gene on down to the next generation as well.
We calve out way too many heifers here at the Silver Barn to have to babysit all of them, so we do pelvic measure. And, we cull those that don’t meet our requirements. Does it cause heartache to have to sell a favorite show heifer because she doesn’t pelvic measure? Oh it sure does, but we expect them to perform and be good cows for us in the long haul. After all, that’s what a breeding beef heifer project is all about!
Even though we are advocates of using pelvic measurements as a tool for replacement heifer selection, we realize it may not be for everyone. But I do have to state that if more producers DID use it as a selection tool, it would improve industry-wide calving ease, as a whole. For more information about pelvic area in yearling beef heifers, check out this abstract from Morehead State University.
Have we brought a few things to mind that you hadn’t considered yet? Stay tuned for the second installment of our discussion for even more food for thought!