The Year's Top Livestock Stories No. 3

What it Takes to Build and Sell $3,000 Heifers

There's gold in this program that emphasizes good management and strong genetics. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Mark Parker)

John Wheeler is a rock star in the world of Missouri beef heifer development. As the gavel fell on lot No. 48 at last May's prestigious Show-Me-Select Replacement Heifer Program sale in Joplin, four of his F1 black baldy females commanded record-setting bids of $3,050 per head. Another five-head lot got a nod for $3,000 per animal.

Taking center stage isn't new for the Marionville cattleman. His bred heifers have topped spring and fall Show-Me-Select (SMS) sales several times during the years. It's something he credits as much to the program as to his own herd genetics.

"If you start with quality females and follow the protocol, the heifers that survive all the requirements are almost guaranteed to be the kind a commercial cattleman wants in his herd," Wheeler said.

An Early Start

A major emphasis of the SMS Program, started in 1997 by University of Missouri animal scientist David Patterson, is identifying reproductively efficient females. Candidates come from heifers born early in the season, as those females are considered more likely to become pregnant early, just like their dams.

Prebreeding exams help producers further hone in on the best potential. By palpating heifers' reproductive tracts, a veterinarian is able to score them according to stage of puberty. Those that score high are cycling, making them more likely to breed and settle efficiently. In addition, pelvic openings are measured. Those with smaller openings, which can correlate to calving difficulty, are cut from the program. The goal of these prebreeding exams is to bring together a group of top-notch heifers, each on track to deliver a calf at 24 months of age. This requires a minimum pelvic area of 150 square centimeters (180 square centimeters for 30-month calvers).

Ninety days after heifers are bred, they're preg-checked. Open heifers are ineligible for the SMS sale. Fetal age in days is also determined. Heifers sell as "guaranteed bred," so another pregnancy check is performed within 30 days of the sale. Spring calvers (offered in fall sales) are bred to calve before May 1. Fall calvers (offered in spring sales) are bred to calve prior to Dec. 1. Sale lots are grouped to assure the heifers will calve within a 45-day window.

While reproduction is a major emphasis, health protocols share equal footing. Heifers receive properly timed vaccinations for brucellosis, IBR (infectious bovine rhinotracheitis), BVD (bovine viral diarrhea), PI-3 (parainfluenza-3), BRSV (bovine respiratory syncytial virus), 5-way leptospirosis, vibriosis and 7-way clostridia. They are tested and guaranteed negative for BVD-PI (persistent infection), as well as treated for internal and external parasites within 90 days of the sales.

Lastly, there's eye appeal. A visual inspection will eliminate heifers with pinkeye scars, frozen ears, bobtails, horns or scurs, or other blemishes. A certified USDA grader checks for frame, muscle and body condition. Frames must meet a minimum projected score of medium and a muscle score of 2. Bred heifers must weigh a minimum of 800 pounds and have a Body Condition Score between 5 and 8.

"It's rigorous. There are a lot of hoops to jump through," said Wheeler, who is also an SMS board member. "But that's what has given the sale its strong reputation."

Development program.

Replacement heifers are Wheeler's lone business focus. Although he has raised replacements from his own herd in the past, he now purchases about 150 potential replacements as weaned calves each year. He said purchasing, as opposed to raising heifers, lets him run more heifers in lieu of cows while broadening the pool of quality females from which he can select for his own herd when he needs to replace a cow. Most of the heifers Wheeler buys come from a couple of breeders whose names he closely guards. Of the 150 heifers he buys to develop, 75 are sold in spring SMS sales, the rest in fall SMS sales.

Choosing the right heifers to develop for the program is the first, and most critical, step in the process, Wheeler stressed.

"If they aren't right to start with, they never will be," he said. "I've gotten to know the herds where most of the heifers I buy come from. I also try to follow up with buyers to make sure I'm staying on track. I avoid extremes. I want moderately framed, well-muscled, structurally sound heifers. I like black baldies because my customers like black baldies."

Wheeler doesn't do anything fancy nutritionally when it comes to producing replacements. He wants a steady gain and grows heifers from approximately 600 pounds to about 1,000 pounds. Most of his pastures are high-endophyte Kentucky 31 tall fescue, interseeded with clovers. A rotational system keeps pastures at a high nutritional level during the growing season. Excessive growth is clipped high and harvested for hay on an as-needed basis, leaving the less-mature, higher-quality forage on the ground for the heifers to graze.

The producer supplements, as needed, with dried distillers grains with solubles (DDGS), containing 26% protein and 10% fat, at a rate of 2 pounds per head per day. The goal, he stressed, is not a rapid gain.

"I just don't want heifers that fall apart when the buyer gets them home," he explained. "It's important they're gaining at breeding time, though, and are developed enough to breed, deliver a calf and rebreed on time."

Wheeler uses the University of Missouri's Show Me Synch program to keep breeding schedules on track and to concentrate calving windows. Sons of the Angus bull, Final Answer, are his choice for both AI (artificial insemination) and cleanup duties. He said he wants to be able to give buyers a "peas in a pod" type calf crop.

"Calving ease is No. 1 when I look at EPDs [expected progeny differences], but I try to select sires that have a good balance of traits. Docility is also extremely important to buyers," he said.

Those buyers are, after all, the final judges when it comes to whether Wheeler has developed a great heifer. When the auctioneer shouts, "Sold!" he knows he's passed their test.

(Show-Me Information: The University of Missouri Show-Me-Select Replacement Heifer Program has developed a reputation as a source for top-level bred heifers. Each year, sale numbers build, and new record prices are being set. For details and to see sale schedules/locations, visit