Blue Valley Ranch Replacement Heifers
Blue Valley Ranch follows a pretty typical annual production cycle for a Western cow-calf operation, calving in late spring and weaning in the late fall. Part of that cycle includes retaining a certain number of female calves every year as replacement heifers. These animals are usually the best of each year’s calf crop, and are carefully raised to become the next generation of mother cows, replacing older animals that are lost or culled.
For many years, many more replacement females were joining Blue Valley Ranch’s herd than older animals were being culled. This allowed the ranch to gradually and carefully expand its cattle herd from just over 80 head in 2003, while maintaining the herd genetics and reproductive performance that have made the ranch a leader in beef cattle production. As the ranch approached its target herd size of 300 in 2013, the replacement rate (# replacement heifers kept annually) began to match its cull rate (# mature animals sold as they are no longer producing), keeping the total herd size constant.
These heifers are just over one year old, and will become new mothers next year at the age of two. Replacement animals are often kept in a separate herd from weaning through the birth of their first calf. This segregation helps these younger animals avoid competing with bigger, older cows for space and resources until they mature themselves. They can also be bred separately from the mature herd so they begin calving at a different time in the spring, which allows the rancher to spend a little more time helping them through common calving problems associated with these “first-calf heifers”. Finally, segregation also allows heifers to be paired with bulls with specific EPDs (expected progeny differences, basically a metric for the genetic potential of different traits), like a low birth rate, which makes calving much easier for first time mothers.
Replacement heifers are essentially teenagers, and often exhibit behavior traits that every cattleman will recognize. A tendency to travel in tight “packs”, a penchant for easily becoming excited, and an inherent curiosity often make handling them a little bit of a challenge. As they mature, however, they will become the future of the ranch’s beef production herd and have as many as 12 calves of their own during their lifetime.