In my last article we talked about changing weather, and what that means for us as ranchers. We talked about pulling cattle off of grazing permits – whether that be federal permits or private land – and how grazing benefits the environment, economy, and fire prevention. Today I want to focus on the next stage of fall and what we are doing now that our cows are down in the lower country.

Most ranchers are selecting or buying replacement heifers, shipping calves, and pregnancy checking cows. One of the most important economic decisions a rancher is making right now is replacement heifer selection. Replacement what? Heifers are cows that have not had their first calf yet – think teenagers – full of spunk and personality at this age.

Replacement heifers are essential to the success of cow calf operations. They are how we advance our genetics and make our herds continually better. Ranchers select high quality cows to produce high quality offspring. High quality offspring translates into high quality product for the consumer to eat. Each and every decision that a rancher makes, at any level, contributes to a high quality, safe, product for the consumer to feed their family.

We need to select replacement heifers to maintain our herd size as we cull older or non-producing cows. The older cows will eventually lose their ability to produce calves, or maybe we are culling them due to conformation issues, or even temperament issues. When cows reach the point that they are no longer able to produce, or we view them as undesirable cows to have in our herd, we sell them to the next stage of the production cycle. This might be to become ground beef or even to go to the herd of another rancher. In years with extreme drought, like we are facing now, some producers might be selling more cows than they are replacing due to lack of forage.

Ranchers will either choose heifers from their own herd – or buy from out of herd. When selecting heifers there are some key things they look for. One of the most important things a rancher looks at is conformation. Our cattle must be able to move freely in the challenging and rough terrain. This means that they must be built correctly. We look to make sure they have no issues with their feet and legs. We look at muscling and how feminine the heifer is built. We want the heifer to be in good condition at the time of selection. We can evaluate this using a tool known as Body Condition Score, which ranges from 1 to 9. Ranchers are also looking for animals with good disposition. It’s much easier to work a calm animal rather than a nervous, flighty animal. We can also look at records from her mother and make sure she’s calm, but protective, during calving season. There is a fine line between a protective mother who will defend her calf from a predator, and a cow that will make it too difficult to work with her baby if the need arises. No one wants to get chased around the pasture by an angry mama…

When choosing heifers, we are choosing our future mother cows – so we want to evaluate their mothers for correct udders, good nursing ability, and good mothering ability. We also want to make sure that they are able to calf with little to no assistance – with Gunnison’s harsh winters we would like them to be able to have a calf without tons of intervention, and on the same note, we want them to have resilient calves that can thrive in this harsh climate. We can look at “stayability” – which is defined as the probability a cow will remain in the herd until six years of age, given she calved as a two-year-old. If females leave before they reach six, they will not have paid back their original investment.  When looking at these traits we can use a scientific method known as Expected Progeny Difference, or EPDs. We will discuss how these work in two weeks, but for now you should know that EPDs are predictions of how future progeny of each animal will perform relative to the progeny of other animals in their peer group (their breed).

Selecting replacement heifers is critically important for ranchers, and as we just discussed it is no easy decision. The weight each rancher puts into each selection category varies, but we all have the same end goal – to advance our herd genetics. The amount of science and data that goes into a good selection is impressive. This science and data can also be broken down into the instinct of a good rancher. Many of the long-time ranchers can make these decisions based on their hands on knowledge more than any other tool. Tune in next time and we will dive deeper into that data and how it works.

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