Some might think this is about long-in-the-tooth cattlemen. But I'm referring to age versus value in the bovine world. Longevity has greater value than ever before.
Breeding herd longevity has become a far more critical beef industry trait in recent years. Good breeding stock is hard to find. The national herd is at its lowest point in over 60 years, so fewer quality animals are available.
Are you shocked by the prices being asked for replacement heifers? If you raise your own replacements and carefully account for the true costs of raising them, you'd be equally shocked.
The doubling of feed prices we're all trying to cope with has a huge effect. And non-feed costs are equally out of control.
Replacements are riskier investments
Depending on your situation, it'll take the net profit from at least three calves (in many cases as many as six calves) to cover the production and development costs of every replacement heifer added to the herd. When a female misses a single calving, most research shows she'll probably never recover the loss of that missed calf.
What's the payback? It's easy to see how a herd with a larger percentage of mature cows has benefits.
Those cows have an overall edge in calving ease and milking ability. Such herds would likely have a higher calf crop weaning percentage plus a heavier average weaning weight. And fewer sleepless nights during calving season is worth quite a bit too!
Because first-calf heifers are still growing, the overall energy requirements of an older herd are lower. You also have the factor of diluting lifetime cow maintenance costs over greater calf numbers.
It's much like comparing two hay storage buildings of equal cost and equal capacity. If one has a productive life of 20 years versus 25 years for the other, one has a 20% lower lifetime storage cost per ton of hay.
Yes, there's a down side to greater herd longevity, especially if you're a breeder that aggressively pursues "new genetics." Greater longevity leads to increased generation interval and a likely reduction in genetic gains realized annually.
How to boost herd longevity
It starts right now, while you select those heifers to keep. Try to retain those older, heavier heifers that have the best chance of calving early in your calving season and at 24 months of age.
Heifers calving early with their first calf have the best chance of conceiving early in subsequent breeding seasons and staying "on schedule" throughout their productive life. Earlier calving also leads to heavier weaning weights.
A cooperative study between USDA's Meat Animal Research Center and South Dakota State University collected longevity data on a total of 18,744 heifers. Data was limited to heifers conceiving during their first breeding season.
Heifers that calved during the first 21-day period of the calving season had increased longevity compared to heifers that calved in the second 21-day period or later. Early calvers also had increased weaning weights, total pounds weaned, and average weaning weight compared to heifers calving later.
Don't forget the importance of matching cattle type to your environment. A mismatch undoubtedly leads to reduced longevity. Examples are heavy milking and/or large size cows in a limited-feed environment or breeds poorly suited to extremely hot climates.
Unfortunately, longevity is a low heritability trait. Those willing to use crossbreeding can make more rapid progress.
Crossbreds are typically more fertile, live longer and are more productive than purebreds. But, that doesn't mean purebred breeders should ignore longevity data.
Reporting whole herd longevity data to your breed association is critical to generating genetic predictors. Expected progeny differences for "stayability" are often available. They're usually defined as "the percentage of daughters remaining in the herd at six years of age."
Harpster is a newly retired Penn State University animal scientist and a beef producer.