Geaux Beef Heifer Development Program Aims to Improve Female Cattle Development

Ashley Edwards, Peveto, Kyle, Faulk, Lee, Holmes, Jason E., Deshotel, Vincent

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Ashley K. Edwards, Jason E. Holmes, Vince Deshotel and A. Lee Faulk

Each year beef cattle producers face decisions over whether to cull females from their herds because of decreased productivity, illness or injury, age and many other factors. Along with culling comes the decision to replace these females with heifers — young females that have not yet given birth to a calf — to maintain herd size and productivity. It is not uncommon for producers to have a replacement rate of 15% to 20% annually. Replacement heifers may be developed on farm or purchased from other operations. Consequently, this can be a costly decision in both the short and long term.

Producers select replacement females based on structural composition and soundness, genetics, age or reproductive maturity, weight, size, temperament and other traits that impact the goals of their operation. The ability to select heifers that improve production goals while still maintaining the uniformity of a herd can be challenging. It can be even more daunting for producers who do not have the pasture availability to develop their own replacement females. Discussions of these challenges were raised by producers and advisory councils at the LSU AgCenter Hill Farm Research Station in Homer, resulting in development of the Geaux Beef Heifer Development Program.

Goals and Benefits

Extension agents and specialists set out to develop a management program focused on best management practices for developing replacement heifers that fit the beef cattle industry in Louisiana. The Geaux Beef Heifer Development Program benefits participating producers by giving them data on heifer performance and productivity throughout the program, allowing them to assess the profitability of implementing best management practices and chosen management strategies.

Along with the ability to collect growth and reproductive performance data on replacement heifers, participants receive consultations with LSU AgCenter experts on all aspects of production, such as reproductive management, health protocols, herd nutrition, record keeping, data analysis and product marketing. In the spring, heifers meeting general breeding requirements receive the option of being bred by artificial insemination or exposure to a bull.

Importantly, this program allows producers to develop and retain heifers from their own herds to maintain uniformity and select for improved genetics from their own cattle. Producers are also able to compare their management strategies with those done at the research station. Similarly, the program may offer data not previously collected by producers, giving them the opportunity to assess herd performance on specific traits and begin implementation of similar data collection on their operation.

Program Overview

The inaugural year for the Geaux Beef Heifer Development Program began on Oct. 1, 2021. During the 2021-2022 year, 50 heifers were accepted from producers throughout the state, and 75 were enrolled in 2022-2023. Enrolled heifers must meet general vaccination, health and management guidelines set by the LSU AgCenter. This helps mitigate chances of illness and injury. Producers enrolled in the program pay a registration fee and pay another fee per head of cattle per day to enroll in the program.

Preliminary data is collected after the heifers have gone through a two-to-three-day adjustment period at their new location. Initial weights, hip height measurements and temperament or docility scores are assessed. Heifers are then sorted into groups based on weight and moved to small pastures where they are fed a grain ration with access to hay for the first few months.

As this is a primarily forage-based program, heifers are moved onto pastures containing a mixture of ryegrass and cereal rye when enough forage is available for grazing in December. Grazing cool-season forages, which include ryegrass, cereal rye and clovers, provides a relatively cost-effective development program for cattle in Louisiana. These forages meet the nutritional demands of growing heifers when supplemented with a free-choice mineral and vitamin mix. This mineral and vitamin mixture is provided in a loose form for heifers to consume whenever they wish. Cattle naturally consume these mixtures while grazing pastures. Weights are collected monthly throughout the duration of the trial to assess heifer growth and performance.

Prior to breeding, all heifers receive pelvic area measurements. These illustrate capacity of the birth canal, indicate appropriate calf birth weight, and help reduce the incidence of dystocia, or birthing difficulties, in first-calf heifers. Dystocia can be common among first-calf heifers when they are not bred at a proper size or are not bred to a bull with appropriate genetics. Likewise, weight and frame size are determined before breeding recommendations are made for each heifer. Artificial insemination and exposure to a bull are optional through the program.

The program concludes in May when the cool-season forages are no longer suitable for grazing. Final weights, hip height measurements and temperament data are collected. Pregnancy status is also determined through blood assay in heifers bred by artificial insemination. Final reports are compiled and sent to individual producers and illustrate the performance of their cattle, along with average performance data for all heifers enrolled. All data is kept confidential throughout the entire program.

Future of the Program

Currently, the program is only offered at the Hill Farm Research Station. The LSU AgCenter hopes to expand this to other research stations in upcoming years, allowing more producers to participate in the program. Future aspirations include the development of a management verification program focused on best management practices of heifer development, which would highlight Louisiana-bred cattle. Overall, the Geaux Beef Heifer Development Program will continue to be a cost-effective way for producers to retain ownership of replacement females so that they may continuously improve performance and meet production goals.

Ashley K. Edwards is the statewide extension livestock specialist based at the Dean Lee Research and Extension Center in Alexandria. Jason E. Holmes is a livestock specialist in the Northeast Region. Vince Deshotel is an extension agent in the Central Region. A. Lee Faulk is an associate extension agent in the Northwest Region.

This article appeared in the fall 2022 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.

A woman with a clipboard takes notes about cows in a pen.

Ashley K. Edwards, the AgCenter state livestock specialist, evaluates the temperament of heifers by assigning a pen score. She walks through a few heifers within a pen and assigns a numerical value based on their behavior to her presence. Photo by Jason E. Holmes

Cattle stand in a field.

Through the Geaux Beef Heifer Development Program, producers can learn how to develop their own female cattle to replace cows that must be culled from the herd because of illness, injury, decreased production or age. Photo by Ashley K. Edwards

A woman measures cattle from outside a pen.

Hip height measurements are indicators of overall size at maturity. Having cattle with a consistent mature size assists with overall management efficiency. Here state livestock specialist Ashley K. Edwards is collecting hip height on a heifer. Photo by Jason E. Holmes

12/15/2022 8:55:02 PM
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