Any good heifer development program equals opportunity for commercial cattle operators. But when the program receives state funding and is run by top-notch Extension beef specialists, it becomes a true path to change within the industry. Producers in the Volunteer State are primed for that kind of change, as they try to turn around a five-year decline in beef cow numbers. Today Tennessee's herd is estimated at 883,000 head, down from a high of 1 million head.
"The herd here has decreased due to a number of factors," said Justin Rhinehart. "Urbanization, retirement of the older generation, pressure to convert pasture to row-crop acreage for corn and beans, droughts, higher rental rates and cost of cattle all play a part."
Rhinehart, University of Tennessee Extension beef cattle specialist, said while most of those factors are beyond anyone's control, the idea of helping producers moderate replacement heifer costs, while improving genetics, was something he knew Extension could do.
"Kevin Thompson and I both have experience in developing replacement heifers, and we've been talking about doing something along these lines in Tennessee for three years now," said Rhinehart. Thompson is UT cattle expert and research center director of the Middle Tennessee Research and Education Center at Spring Hill.
This past October the talk ended, and 97 heifers rolled into a brand-new development facility at Lewisburg. They represented 18 producers, each with six or seven head accepted into the first Tennessee Beef Heifer Development Program -- a partnership between the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture (UTIA), the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA) and Tennessee Farmers Cooperative. Funding is made available through the Tennessee Ag Enhancement Program (TAEP). Rhinehart said the new $300,000 facility includes a barn, grass traps for weaning and feeding, and a perimeter fence for grazing. It is based on 200 acres of pasture, mostly made up of fescue with some winter annuals, clovers, and summer native, warm-season grasses, including big bluestem and Indiangrass.
Consignments the first year were all spring-born heifers, between 6 and 7 months old, with body condition scores of at least 6. They were pulled straight off their dams to be custom-weaned as part of the program.
"We have 11 months, from October to September, to grow them, AI them, give them all their vaccinations and boosters, feed them and manage all of their health needs, including parasite control," said Rhinehart.
After that 11 months, heifers go back to their home herds. The idea is to return well-developed, bred heifers to producers, helping them expand herds and improve genetics. Cost is estimated at $950 per head, which can be shared through TAEP. Producers qualify for the cost-share under an educational program. The program is expected to grow, with a goal set to develop 500 to 600 replacement heifers annually within two years.
The Right Match
Vivien Allen is one of the lucky producers chosen to have heifers included in this first round of the program. A retired forage specialist from Texas Tech University, Allen recently returned to her family's home, Feliciana Farms, in Franklin County, Tenn. The third generation to call the farm "home," she runs a 66-head cattle operation here called "My Way Angus."
"What Justin is doing is right down the line with what I'm interested in," she said of the development program. "I've always kept commercial cows and used registered Black Angus bulls. My cows are not registered -- they are mostly Angus, with some Hereford and Brangus. Now that I am retired, I am able to use some AI, and I'm focused on improving genetics in the herd," she added.
Allen hopes the program will help her develop high-quality replacement heifers and find good markets.
"Heifers are the focus of my enterprise at this point. This development program will help me become acquainted with more producers across the state who are trying to do what I'm doing, and that is very valuable. It also gets my calves out there, creating visibility within the industry. That will help me with the marketing side of the business, which is a challenge."
Given her background in forages and nutrition, Allen adds her goal is to keep cows grazing as many days out of the year as possible. Her forage-based system is right in sync with the heifer-development program.
"They are focused on the forage side of this as well," she said. "I like how they are handling the cattle, their objectives and their goals. It gives me a chance to see how they develop heifers in an environment where they have all they know collectively at hand. I can compare that to what I'm doing, learn from them and then bring that knowledge home. It's a win-win situation."
Another Tennessee producer with six heifers in the program, Bobby Cornwell, is excited to use what he learns from participating on his growing, 53-head, Angus-based cow herd. He's been seriously working cattle about seven years and believes the new program is going to generate ideas that cattlemen across the state can benefit from.
"I'm interested in doing anything I can to help the cattle business in Tennessee grow and improve," he said. "Whatever we can learn and share with others is going to help everyone." Cornwall added that once the heifers come back to their home herd they will help improve his overall genetics and grow the operation.
A key part of the development program is sire selection for use on the heifers. Rhinehart said a committee of 10, including producers, Extension and industry representatives, chooses a panel of AI sires. All expected progeny differences (EPD) information on the sires is made available, and the producers who have heifers in the program choose the sire they feel best fits their needs.
"I'm a big fan of crossbreeding," said Rhinehart. "Our philosophy with the whole program, from bull selection to what producers do with these bred heifers when they get them back, is to let the market drive their decisions. We think initially most of these heifers will go back into their home herds and help build those numbers up."
He added the program is more than a service to producers -- it is a path to expansion for the industry.
"We want this to be a demonstration project for producers in the area. We want to give them a model. We see this as a business opportunity, as well as a way to help individual herds grow. The bigger goal here is to help producers create new enterprises and increase farm income. That's the traditional Extension role: Model something that creates opportunity for those in agriculture in your state."
A HELPING HAND
There are a number of heifer development programs across the country, some through Extension, some through cattlemen's organizations and some through commercial developers. The goals of these programs vary based on localized markets and producer needs. To find a program, check with your state Extension office or cattlemen's organization. Here are links to a few state programs to help you begin your research:
-- Georgia: www.caes.uga.edu/commodities/animals/beef/herd
-- Illinois: web.extension.illinois.edu/dsac/cat128_3930.html
-- Mississippi: msucares.com/livestock/beef/heifer.html
-- Missouri: http://agebb.missouri.edu/…
For more information:
Governor's Rural Challenge:
Master Beef Producer:
Tennessee Department of Agriculture:
Tennessee Beef Heifer Development Program:
Tennessee Ag Enhancement Program (TAEP):
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