Donny Stephens enjoys developing heifers. It's a passion that shows. About 100 peas-in-a-pod bred heifers graze his Alabama pastures, while they wait to go to their new homes.
Stephens started this enterprise 15 years ago when he bought 11 potential replacements to supplement his own 100-cow herd at Marion Junction. He and wife, Pat, kept every one of those heifers.
Today, the two typically bring 20 to 25 of the heifers they purchase back into the home herd each season, selling the rest to other producers. The Stephens' process for heifer development begins at weaning time. They try to buy heifers in April, May and June, because Stephens says this is not a time of the year when open heifers are typically in high demand.
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The producer likes to purchase heifers from cattlemen who have bought bred heifers from him. They usually have similar genetics (SimAngus and Angus) to those he uses in his own herd. He typically offers market price for weanling heifers plus 1 to 2 cents. He bases prices on weekly auction reports from his state, as well as a consult with Jerry Etheredge, of Montgomery Stockyards, who tells him current prices for type and weight on the heifers he's buying. If a heifer is AI-sired (artificially inseminated), then he gives a $50 to $100 premium.
Heifers average around 550 to 650 pounds when Stephens gets them. Some have been through a preconditioning program, others have not. All have had two rounds of vaccinations for respiratory diseases. That is a rule here, where Stephens says he simply will not bring a health problem onto the place.
If the heifers have been preconditioned, Stephens puts them straight onto bermudagrass, bahia, dallisgrass and crabgrass pastures. If they haven't been weaned, he puts them in a pen for a week or so until they settle down.
He starts heifers on soy hulls or a similar byproduct, increasing the amount until they eat up to 7 or 8 pounds per head per day. He says he likes soy hulls because they are easy to handle, economical and give the heifers all the fiber and nutrition they need. He targets them to be at 65% of their projected mature weight at breeding time, which means they need to average somewhere around 800 to 850 pounds by December. He notes they are usually closer to the 950- to 1,000-pound mark.
"We'll adjust the amount of feed according to the grass," he adds. "I try to keep them gaining a pound to a pound-and-a-half a day to reach the right size for breeding in December."
Along with soy hulls, heifers have free-choice access to a high-quality mineral containing Bovatec, a coccidiostat. Bovatec increases feed and forage efficiency. Alabama Cooperative Extension System veterinarian Soren Rodning doesn't object to Bovatec, but he says the biggest benefit of Stephens' mineral program is that he has a solid one. "There is no doubt in my mind that a good mineral program is a key component of high fertility," Rodning says.
In October, Stephens puts a high emphasis on the heifers' health program, which he developed with his local veterinarian, Ted Stuedeman. First, Stephens deworms with a Dectomax injectable. "When that needle goes in, I know they are getting the correct dose," he says. "With a pour-on, it can splatter off. I also feel Dectomax is one of the better dewormers."
In addition, he gives them a Bovi-Shield Gold FP5 VL5 HB injection, which provides immunity against BVD, PI3, respiratory syncytial virus, vibrio and lepto hardjo-bovis. He also gives them a blackleg vaccination to booster the one they had as calves. In November, Stephens repeats the Bovi-Shield Gold FP5 VL5 HB to ensure heifers get full immunity.
That's when the reproductive part of his program starts. In addition to Stuedeman, Stephens works closely with Rodning and Josh Elmore, regional Extension agent with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. The two conduct research at Stephens' operation and use their findings to help other producers.
Rodning does a pelvic measurement on each of the potential replacements. This ensures the heifer has a large enough pelvis to calve unassisted. While the size of the calf and/or abnormal presentations can factor into calving difficulty, Elmore says, for the most part this simple measurement works. A pelvic measure of less than 140 (cm2) is considered unacceptable for a young heifer (the average is 180 to 185).
Rodning then palpates internal reproductive organs and gives heifers a reproductive tract score (RTS) of 1.0 to 5.0. In a 1.0, the heifer has no tone to her uterine horns, her ovaries are quite small and follicles can't be felt. In a 5.0, the heifer has good tone to her uterine horns, her ovaries are well-developed and have a number of follicles, as well as a corpus luteum.
"We cull the 1s and 2s, and those heifers that don't have all the parts," Stephens says.
"With an RTS of 3.0, heifers are on the verge of cycling," Elmore explains. "With an RTS of 4.0 to 5.0, we presume they are cycling. With a 3.0 or higher, they generally have higher conception rates and conceive earlier in the breeding season."
However, like most things in nature, nothing is 100%, Stephens points out.
"I have three of the biggest, prettiest heifers you ever saw that I am fixing to sell for freezer beef. All three scored a 5.0, but they didn't get bred."
He says as a general rule, 10% aren't going to get bred, adding: "Even when you do everything right, there are still a handful of heifers that are not going to breed. It is frustrating. There is ongoing research to explain it, but we aren't there yet."
For heifers that pass the reproductive screening, the actual synchronization and breeding process normally starts Dec. 1. Stephens uses the seven-day CO-Synch + CIDR protocol, which is a fixed-time AI program with no heat checking needed.
On Day Zero, Stephens puts heifers through the chute and inserts a CIDR (intravaginal progesterone-releasing insert). At the same time, he gives them an injection of GnRH (gonadotropin-releasing hormone).
On Day 7, he pulls the CIDR and gives a prostaglandin injection. After 52 to 56 hours, either he or his Select Sires rep, Len Holliman, AI all of them and give them another GnRH injection.
Normally, they average a 50 to 65% conception rate for the timed AI. He estimates his costs are around $40 to $50 if he does the AI himself. That includes $15 to $25 per straw of semen, $20 for the CIDRs and drugs, plus the cost of gloves, lube, sheaths and towels.
Fourteen days after AI breeding, Stephens turns cleanup bulls in with the heifers for 60 days.
"Later on, I may put a bull back in with the open heifers in another pasture," he adds. "They can always work for someone else if they do get bred."
The sires used for either AI or natural service have to meet both Stephens' and Holliman's standards. "Len sees bulls all over the country and knows which bulls work with certain cows," Stephens says.
No matter who chooses the sire, when it comes to traits, he says calving ease comes first. Next are maternal traits, specifically moderate milk production. Third are growth and carcass traits. What he doesn't want are 1,600- to 1,800-pound cows, he adds.
Along with moderate-framed animals, Stephens wants marbling. "Our marbling has improved consistently," he says. "Years ago, our percentage of intramuscular fat (IMF%) was 2.5. Now, it is 5.5."
Lastly, the producer likes to consider the history of the cows the bulls have sired. Are they still in production?
Stephens says proven sires take a lot of the risk out of breeding. Only occasionally will he use a young sire, saying it has to be one "I really love."
In April, Rodning pregnancy-checks the heifers. He is able to tell Stephens whether the fetus is AI-sired or sired by a cleanup bull based on its size. Then, Stephens sorts heifers into groups based on size, body condition, color and how early or late they were bred.
While he does put a limited number of heifers into consignment sales, the majority are sold private treaty, often to the same producers who sold him weaned heifers a year earlier. For a base price, Stephens uses the rule of thumb that a bred heifer is worth two open heifers from the past year. If they are AI-sired, he adds $150 a head.
"I think AI makes them worth $150 more if I sell them or keep them for myself," he states.
University of Tennessee agricultural economist Andrew Griffith says it is often more cost-effective for producers to purchase rather than raise their own replacement heifers.
"A lot of cow/calf producers are fairly small. The fixed costs can be very expensive for a small number of animals. And, a lot of smaller producers just don't have a good place to keep heifers separate from the mature cows," Griffith explains.
The producers who buy from Stephens seem to agree. He has learned to pick the heifers he needs for his own herd early because there aren't any leftovers.
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