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Herd rebuilding tips to be offered at State of Beef Conference

As Nebraska rangeland recovers from several years of severe drought, many ranchers are interested in rebuilding cow herds that were downsized as pastures dried up.

Herds can be rebuilt either with purchased replacement cows or with heifers raised from a ranch’s herd. But for many Nebraska ranchers, it’s difficult to manage a breeding program that produces replacement females in addition to males destined to eventually go to market, according to a University of Nebraska expert.

UNL Extension beef geneticist Matt Spangler says ranchers who are in a rebuilding mode would do well to think about what their breeding program can do best, and focus on that area.

Spangler will be one of the expert speakers at the first annual Nebraska Sate of Beef Conference Nov. 4-5 at North Platte. Fittingly, the conference theme is “Rebuilding the Cow Herd.”

Spangler will discuss the differences between using a terminal breeding program and a maternal breeding program for a given herd.

He explained the difference between the two:

A terminal breeding program is oriented to the production of terminal animals (destined for the market).

A maternal breeding program is the opposite; these animals are destined to be replacement females that go back into the herd. It’s a challenge to accomplish both types of breeding programs simultaneously on the same operation, according to Spangler, because of the large number of animals required and the fact that each requires emphasis on different suites of traits.

“Medium and small size producers need to think about what makes the most sense for their operation,” he said. “Commonly, they try to ride the fence, and produce both market and replacement animals. Unfortunately, this can create inefficiencies.”

Spangler said a producer planning to rebuild a herd should consider several fundamental questions. One question: Do they really have the resources to develop replacement females, and can they do it as cheaply as someone else whom they might purchase them from?

Spangler acknowledged that buying replacement heifers is expensive, but added, “I would encourage producers to honestly evaluate what it truly costs to development a suitable replacement.”

One benefit of buying replacement animals and breeding a terminal herd is that the rancher can focus bull selection on traits to fit only one breeding objective, such as growth rate and carcass quality.

“That makes bull selection easier because you’re selecting on a smaller number of traits, and allows you to make improvements more quickly in your herd since your selection criteria are more focused,” Spangler said.

The flip side is also true. Producers who focus on producing replacement females are focused on a narrower range of traits, and can make progress more quickly in that narrow range of traits.

For a rancher, the decision process on a breeding program is similar to that of a diversified farming and ranching enterprise that is considering specializing to excel in one area.

“Except here we’re talking about an enterprise that has beef cattle, but deciding to truly excel in one component of beef cattle production instead of trying to do both,” Spangler said.

At the State of Beef conference, Spangler’s presentation will focus on what kind of factors enter into making these decisions, and once the decision is made, what resources are important to excel. Some of those areas include breed selection, cross-breeding programs, which traits to focus on, so a rancher can try to maximize profitability.

Organizers hope the State of Beef Conference will be the first in a series of conferences to be held every other year in Nebraska. It would fall on alternating years with a regional beef conference, the Range Beef Cow Symposium, which rotates locations among Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado.

The State of Beef conference will focus on making good use of the resources that have moved Nebraska to the forefront of the nation’s cattle industry, as well as technology that shows promise for the future. It is being organized by University of Nebraska-Lincoln Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Information and updates about the State of Beef Conference are available on-line at https://panhandle.unl.edu/state-of-beef-conference. A link at the site will put potential vendors and sponsor in touch with the information they need. A registration form can be downloaded from the website, filled out, and mailed with registration fee.

Some of the other topics on the agenda:

Using technology in the beef herd to get “more bang for the buck.”

Knowing an operation’s unit cost of production.

The beef market outlook—why rebuild?

A panel discussion of producers who have done unique things or used their resources in a less traditional way, allowing them to expand their cow herd or bring somebody back to the ranch to work.

The role of beef production, as well as crops, in helping rebuild rural Nebraska.

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