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Restricted-Feed Intake In Heifers Makes Better Cows

“When you develop a heifer on a restricted-gain program, you change the metabolic efficiency of that heifer and the way it utilizes feed and stores energy reserves.”


Just as too many cooks can spoil the broth, it seems too much feed makes for less efficient heifers.

Using a similar strategy to that of an ongoing USDA study in Montana that began in 2001, MAFRI beef production specialist John Popp has seen positive results from feeding his own retained heifers a restricted diet in their first year with the goal of building a more efficient herd that is cheaper to overwinter and offers greater cow longevity.

“When you develop a heifer on a restricted-gain program, you change the metabolic efficiency of that heifer and the way it utilizes feed and stores energy reserves,” said Popp, at a beef meeting hosted by the Minnedosa Grazing Club last week.

“We’re not talking about framing down the size of that cow genetically, we’re talking about permanently affecting that animal by environment, which is feed.”

Compared to the majority of feeding programs for young heifers, which aim for daily weight gains of 1.75 to two pounds per day in order to maximize the odds of reproductive success at first breeding, the restricted feeding strategy being used by the Montana researchers aims for 1.1 to 1.2 pounds per day in post-weaning gains.

The heifers are fed 80 per cent of the control diet for their first 140 days after weaning, then bred at 600 pounds. They drop their first calf at around 850 to 900 pounds, then grow to reach a mature weight of 1,100 pounds, which is typical for Montana herds.

What’s so great about smaller cows?

For starters, they eat less.

If a 100-cow herd weighs 50 pounds less at maturity, that means the herd overall is 5,000 pounds lighter. If a cow eats roughly three per cent of its body-weight each day, that means the herd as a whole eats 150 pounds less feed per day.

Based on $60-per-tonne hay, that’s $24 per head in savings on wintering costs for pregnant heifers, and 200 to 300 pounds less hay per cow for $9 to $12 in savings per head each winter.

“That’s money that you’re not spending,” said Popp.

Because the cows are genetically the same, the steers that come out of them end up finishing with roughly the same number of days on feed as their conventionally raised counterparts.

What’s more, the improvement in feed efficiency seems to increase over successive generations

in a cow herd. The first generation, he warned, may see slightly lower pregnancy rates, but over time the overall average improves in line with improved feed efficiency and higher body condition scores.

In Popp’s own herd, reproductive rates fell initially, but over the years they have bounced back. The 850-pound first-calf heifers have no calving problems, and his herd’s “toughness” has gone up.

More efficient cows maintain their body condition better, and that translates into improved fertility – the No. 1 determinant of a rancher’s profitability.

“If your cows are in better shape and they are carrying good body condition, they become pregnant more easily,” said Popp.

The Montana numbers show the restricted-feed-intake heifers dropped calves that weighed only three pounds less than the conventional group, and weaning weights were just 16 pounds lighter.

Although some ranchers

have adopted a “dump cows-buy cows” strategy to squeeze a profit out of the cattle business, Popp believes developing environment-specific heifers that can thrive under a low-cost production model will end up bringing greater returns over the long term.

“I think that’s absolutely key,” he said. “Because if you go to a purebred sale and buy an everyday heifer, the reality is that a lot of those heifers are not going to survive in a situation like ours, with half-hay, half-straw bale grazing. Those cows lose weight like there’s no tomorrow.”


Restricted-feed intake heifers are already started on a path toward better matching their genotype with their environment. That’s contrary to the goal of most ranchers, who for decades have constantly aimed for increased performance on a heavily grain-based diet because barley was cheap.

“But as a cow-calf guy, I want a cow that is efficient at utilizing grass and nothing else,” he said. “I want to be able to winter that cow as cheaply as possible, but I still want her to produce a growthy calf that can either go to grass or go into a feedlot.”

Popp has tried the same technique on his bulls with good success. Even though they look like “skinny little runts” compared to the ones in the sales catalogues, thinner animals live longer and have lower feeding costs.

“They look horrible,” he said. “But 10 years from now, they will still be around and they know how to eat straw.”

Skinny isn’t pretty, he added, but profit in ranching is all about converting forage, straw, and low-quality feeds into meat.

“If I could inject 10 cc of hibernation into my beef cows and go away for the winter like a grain farmer, then I would be a rich man, right?” he joked. “That would be perfect.” [email protected]

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