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8 Replacement Heifer Tips

You could be entering the most important phase of your ranching career. It’s expansion time, and most cowherds will be participating. If you are adding a few heifers – or a lot – your success rate could impact you greatly over the next 10 years. Rick Rasby, University of Nebraska Extension cattle specialist, offers eight tips.

1. Bigger isn’t always better. “Your biggest heifers might be older; that isn’t a reason to keep them,” says Rasby. Rather, he reminds, you want heifers that fit your resource base, stick around, breed early every year, raise calves with excellent growth and carcass characteristics, and hit the right mature cow weight. If you select heifers mostly on weaning size, you can gradually and unknowingly select for frame-size creep. “Over a few generations, you end up with cows that are bigger than you really want them,” he notes.

2. Maternal EPDs. Save heifers from cows that tend to calve early in season, milk good, wean big calves, have good udders, are calm, and regain body condition quickly after weaning. All those traits are heritable. “As for calmness, I like cows that are protective. That means they are good mothers,” says Rasby. “I don’t want cows that are overly aggressive. They can hurt you.”

3. Save heifers from older cows. There’s a reason they’ve stayed in your herd a few years. When you save heifers from older cows, you are indirectly selecting for fertility, longevity, good udders, good temperament, and low maintenance. “You can hope that her heifer calves live as productive a life as she did,” says Rasby.

4. Breed extra heifers. One system Rasby likes is to cull the obvious low 10% to 20% of heifers at weaning. Keep and develop the other 90% as potential replacements. Expose them in a short breeding season (45 days or less) and keep the ones that fit your calving season back to your herd. This approach means some years you’ll have very nice bred heifers to sell as a sideline business. “It lets you delay the decision on which ones to keep for yourself as long as possible, after you know that they breed early and fit your resources,” says Rasby.

5. Breeding condition. Get heifers to about 60% of their expected mature weight when you breed. This number used to be a little higher, about two thirds of mature weight. Research is showing they do just as well when bred at 55% to 60% of mature weight, and you can save $22 to $30 a head in development costs. If mature cow weight is 1,200 pounds, your heifers need to be about 700 pounds at breeding.

6. Crossbreeding is essential. You wouldn’t think people would need to hear that now, says Rasby, after all the years of preaching it. The current industry emphasis on certain breeds and colors is so heavy that even some commercial producers have neglected crossbreeding. “It pays off greatly over the life of a cow in pounds of calves weaned and her herd longevity,” he says. You can have the right color(s) for your market and have crossbred heifers, too.

7. Care for cows late in gestation. Evidence is emerging for fetal programming. It shows that if a cow gets a little protein bump in her diet the last trimester, the calf is programmed for a more productive life in either the feedlot or as a replacement female. Why? “I don’t think we really understand that yet,” says Rasby. “It just says that a heifer from a cow that got supplement will have a more productive life herself. We’re still studying it.”

8. Keep annual replacement rate at 15% or less. Your most productive cows are mature ones 4 to 10 years old. It’s where you want the bulk of your herd. “I like to see a herd where no more than 30% or so of cows are 2- and 3-year-olds. That means 70% are in their most productive phase.”

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