Rebreeding First Calf Heifers
Whether purebred or commercial, reproduction has long been a major
limiting factor in beef-cow operations. And, one of the most common frustrations is the failure to get first-calf heifers rebred, says Tom Geary, with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Miles City, Mont.
The first-calf heifer has a few things working against her, he adds. First,
she’s not mature, so she has to find enough energy for growth, maintenance and lactation al at once. Plus, she’s often asked to do these things at a time of year when only poor quality forage is available. Is it any surprise the pregnancy rate in two- and three-year olds is frequently the lowest in the herd?
The two-year-old female is the most expensive and valuable animal in the
herd. After al , she hasn’t yet generated any income, but considerable money has been invested in her. In fact, estimates say it costs $950 to develop a replacement heifer and get her to the point of her first calving.
So, if a heifer fails as a two-year old, that’s a significant financial loss. In
most herds, a replacement female won’t actual y pay for herself until she’s five years old — after weaning her fourth calf.
For al those reasons, it’s often logical to invest a little extra in getting her
rebred than to start al over with another animal, says Geary. Postpartum Interval
Many research studies have looked at identifying and addressing the
rebreeding troubles of first-calf heifers, he explains. The primary problem stems from differences in the postpartum interval (PPI) between heifers and their older counterparts.
Cows need 40-60 days to recover from calving and to overcome the
resulting negative energy balance. Once that's done, a cow will return to regular estrous cycles and be ready to rebreed.
But, two- and three-year olds may Management Rebreeding first calf
heifers Require as much as 70-90 days. Genetic selection for increased productivity may worsen the problem if a female’s genetic potential gets “out of synch” with the production environment. After al , high-performance animals have higher nutritional requirements.
Research suggests the key to increasing pregnancy rates, especial y
among young cows, is to shorten the PPI. This increases the number of opportunities to al ow her to conceive in a given breeding season — and increases her fertility early in the breeding season.
Some producers try to get around the heifer's longer PPI by breeding
heifers three weeks before the rest of the cowherd. The intent is to allow them more time to recover before the next breeding season begins.
But, this practice can backfire and heifers that calve too early in the spring
may actually have a longer PPI because they have an even longer wait after calving for green grass, adds Geary. If just-calved heifers don't get sufficient
nutrients, they'l be even further behind at the next breeding. Postpartum nutrition
affects fertility primarily, but deficiencies during that period can also lengthen PPI. More Successful Strategies
Research suggests other strategies can more successful y shorten a
heifer’s PPI, says Geary. One is to ensure heifers have sufficient energy stores before calving. It's very difficult, if not impossible, to make those up afterward.
“In fact, prepartum nutrition, especial y during the 50-60 days before
calving, is the primary control er of PPI length. She should be in a body condition score of 5-6 at calving,” Geary says. Also, five different studies suggest feeding ionophores after calving shortens PPI in cows an average of 18 days, if adequate energy is also available. It will increase feed costs by less than 2¢/day.
Heifers that calve late as two-year olds often fail to rebreed, or they calve
later as three-year olds. So, having them calve early in the calving season is critical. That means they must be cycling at the beginning of the breeding season.
Geary offers several suggestions: •Weight: The old rule that heifers must be at least 65% of their mature
weight at the start of breeding season is still true. What’s diff e rent is mature weight; it used to be around 1,000-1,100 lbs., so heifers needed to weigh 650-700 lbs.
Now, mature cows weigh 1,250 lbs. or more. As a result, heifers must be
at least 800 lbs. to be at 65% of their m a t u re weight. Selecting replacement heifers from older calves wil help get them there.
•Synchronization can be a helpful tool for any heifer development program
— even with natural service — to increase the number of heifers that calve early. Synchronization can be as simple as feeding MGA in pel ets for 14 days, then turning in bul s two weeks after the final feeding.
•Calving difficulties (dystocia), which are known to increase PPI and delay
rebreeding, are more common among first-calf heifers. That fact has made artificial insemination (AI) for heifers popular. It al ows producers to be certain of using only proven calving-ease sires.
One study showed that heifers experiencing dystocia were 35% more
likely to be cul ed than herd mates. Future reproductive failure is most often the cause.
If calving assistance is needed, it must be given early. After a heifer has
spent 1.5 hours in Stage 2 labor (with hooves visible) every 30-minute delay in getting her help meant a six-day-longer interval to her next pregnancy.
•Estrus induction can be done in several ways. One is to expose heifers,
ideal y from 30 days after calving until the start of breeding, to sterile bul s or androgenized cows. A bull pheromone is what makes this technique work; it requires 30 days of exposure and a ratio of one bull or androgenized cow to 20 heifers.
Estrus can also be induced with hormones used for synchronization,
though neither a normal nor a high dose of MGA worked in studies. But, a CIDR
inserted into the vagina for seven days releases progesterone. In early postpartum cows treated with the CIDR, 60% were in estrus within four days. The fertility of the estrus, however, was not tested.
Another hormone, GnRH, can be injected to induce estrus. It causes the
release of progesterone for five to seven days, initiating a short cycle.
The estrus that fol ows a shot of prostaglandin 7 days after GnRH has
been shown to be very fertile. Either hormonal induction can be used 30 days after calving.
•Early weaning: Short-term calf removal effectively induces estrus in
postpartum cows, but doesn’t work as wel in first-calf heifers. However, early and permanent weaning holds more promise for improving reproductive efficiency in that group than al other methods combined.
The demands of lactation are a critical factor affecting PPI, especial y in
first-calf heifers. To affect reproduction, the calf should be removed, preferably, before the beginning of the breeding season. Thus, it may mean weaning calves less than 60 days old. But calves do need to be at least 30 days old, so it is still important that heifers have their firs calf early in the calving season.
Studies have shown that even 40- day-old calves can outperform suckled
calves if fed a highly palatable and high-energy ration.
Extra labor, management and expense may be necessary to make a
difference in reproductive efficiency for first-calf heifers. But, it can be worth the effort.
Getting heifers to conceive and calve early as three-year olds may
translate into a greater lifetime productivity. Just remember, it’s a $950 savings each time a two-year old gets rebred, concludes Geary. This article was written and produced by the National Association of Animal Breeders as a service to U.S. beef producers. For more information about NAAB, please visit the organization’s website at or cal (573) 445-4406. American Salers Magazine – March 2004 Rev: May, 2009
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