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Heifer selection is in the eye of the beholder

Here’s how Travis Olson beholds them

There are many criteria regarding which heifers to keep and which ones to sell. Most producers have certain goals that help guide those decisions. Commercial cattlemen want heifers that will be fertile, productive, long-lived cows that stay in the herd a long time producing good calves. Purebred breeders want heifers that will produce high-quality seedstock — bulls or females — for their customers. Some breeders look first at performance records and then visually evaluate the heifers, while others make their first sort in the corral/pasture and use records as a final tie-breaker.

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Regardless of a heifer’s performance records, pedigree, EPDs of sire and dam, etc., she must also have other qualities that are more difficult to measure. There is no substitute for a good eye when evaluating heifers.

Travis Olson of Ole Farms, Athabasca, Alta., has had a lot of experience selecting heifers. His ranch raises seedstock as well as commercial cattle from 1,000 registered Angus cows and 500 commercial cows.

When asked, usually by commercial producers, what people should look for when selecting heifers, Olson generally offers eight key factors to evaluate, and some of them may not be so obvious.

1. Evaluate the dam

“A lot of people go into a pen of heifers and pick the ones they like the look of, but the most important factor is the mother, not the looks of the calf. If you have records, you need to use those to closely evaluate the mother of that heifer. Are her feet good? Is her udder sound? Does the heifer and her mom have good temperament? Do you have production records and weights on her calves? Has she had a calf every year?” There are many things you can’t tell about that heifer’s potential as a cow, without evaluating her mother.

“Everything goes back to profitability, and the No. 1 factor in profit or loss in North American beef herds is how many calves you wean for every cow exposed to a bull. You want to choose a daughter out of a cow that has produced for several years and hasn’t missed a calf or fallen back; she’s breeding up every year, her calving interval is tight, she has a sound udder and feet. Most people don’t pay enough attention to this. They just go into the pen of heifers and pick the 20 that look best. Looks are important but the mother is extremely important,” he explains.

2. Choose your older heifers, not your bigger ones

You want heifers that were born early in the calving period because that means their mothers were fertile. “You end up with a better herd if you sell your heifer calves on choice, because your neighbours will come in and pick the biggest 10 per cent. Many commercial producers make the mistake of keeping the biggest heifers. A person who always keeps the biggest heifers soon ends up with cows that are too large.

“You end up with a better herd if you choose females that were born from the first or second cycle. This puts more emphasis on fertility and keeping calving intervals tight.

“There are also reasons why the younger heifers in the group could be less successful. Their mothers may not have been as fertile, and those youngest heifers will have less time to mature enough to have a cycle or two before you start breeding them,” he adds.

3. Select from the middle of the herd

“Don’t pick the smallest 10 per cent nor the biggest. Avoid extremes, in all traits. You don’t want the extremely long heifer or extremely short heifer. Extremely muscular can be a really big problem. You don’t want a heifer that looks more like a steer because often her endocrine balance is off and she doesn’t regulate her hormones correctly. There’s more chance that she’ll come up open,” says Olson.

“You also don’t want a heifer that’s extremely long-necked or too short-necked which makes her look like a male.”

4. Females should look like females

Select feminine heifers. “There should be some angularity to the head and neck. Most people will select for this, but a heifer should look like a heifer,” he says. There’s more chance that she will be fertile, maternal and productive.

5. Easy fleshing

This is harder to evaluate at weaning because a fat heifer may have a dam that milked too well. The dam herself may actually be thin. It’s easier to evaluate the heifer’s fleshing ability after her first winter, before her first breeding season. “A heifer going into the breeding season that doesn’t have enough fat isn’t going to breed. She probably won’t last if she’s in a difficult environment. If she doesn’t flesh as a yearling heifer she won’t flesh as a cow.” She’ll fall apart when she’s lactating and raising a calf.

6. Hair coat

“A highly productive, feminine, fertile heifer will be one of the first to lose her guard hairs in the spring, shedding quicker. She has a soft, smooth hair coat, compared to a male,” says Olson.

Males have coarser hair than females, especially over the head and crest. “This has to do with higher levels of testosterone; the hair will be kinkier and coarser over those points whereas the females’ hair will tend to be softer and smoother. You’ll see varying degrees of this in heifers, but if you look at your open heifers they are often the ones that shed off last — so watch those guard hairs. If you are buying heifers or selecting your own, weed out the ones that don’t shed off as quickly. They hold their guard hairs longer because they haven’t been cycling.” Hormones change the body metabolism and make a difference in many things.

7. Width through the pins (pelvic size)

He recommends palpating and measuring pelvic width in heifers. “Some females just don’t have a very wide birthing canal. Selecting the ones with adequate pelvic size can prevent some calving issues and if you palpate them you could also detect something abnormal like a bone spur. You can kind of tell they have adequate width through the pins just by looking at the heifers, but even more if they don’t have enough width,” says Olson.

8. Slope from hooks to pins

“This is probably one of the most important factors, but often overlooked, especially in North American cattle. You won’t find any wild animal that is level from hooks to pins,” says Olson. Elk, deer, moose, bison, etc., all have a sloping rear end. Cattle that are level from hooks to pins are exhibiting a serious man-made fault. Many cattlemen feel that being level looks more balanced, but it is actually more natural to have the hooks considerably higher than the pins, with good slope to the rear end.

This is an important structural trait. “I recommend a book written in the 1950s by the South African researcher Jan Bonsma, entitled Man Must Measure. After he wrote it, he started touring the U.S. and giving talks about cattle structure. I strongly encourage all purebred and commercial producers to read that book.”

“Lack of slope causes reproduction issues. The show ring has been part of the problem. People talk about a square hip, for instance, as a good trait, whereas in reality it is a detriment,” says Olson.

Many producers tend to choose cattle that are straight in the hind leg. All wild animals are cow-hocked, and also have some angle to the hock joint when viewed from the side, which is a much stronger structure than straight hind legs or post-legged cattle.

photo: Supplied

“If you have an animal that has a straight hind leg, this moves the patella and also changes the angle of the leg, rotating the pin. When the hooks and pins become level, the hind legs become straight (construction that often won’t hold up) and changes the angle of the pelvis.” This changes the birth canal and makes it more difficult for the calf to come through in a natural arc. The calf’s feet tend to jam up against the backbone and tail head. The lack of slope and smaller birth canal also makes drainage from the reproductive tract more difficult.

“Another worrisome thing that it does with the short tail head is move the anus forward, inside the body cavity. This is called a recessed anus, with the vulva tipped forward. Like a ‘windsucking’ mare, fecal material falls into the vagina. Many commercial producers are finding that a lot of these sharp-tailed, level-pinned cows are coming up open. They are also harder to calve. If you do have to make an assist on that kind of cow, and are pulling the calf, it’s often a hard pull and you hear a pop. This means that the thurl — the bone halfway between the hook and the pins, where the ilium and ischium meet (the hip joint) — is out of place.” If there is adequate slope, the birth canal is more open and actually has more room.

A show animal that is level from hooks to pins has more reproductive problems. “There needs to be a slope toward the rear, as shown in illustrations in Jan Bonsma’s book. His research was done 65 years ago, and he pointed out the Bos indicus cattle and many breeds that do have a good slope, and singled out some of the European breeds that became too level and had more reproductive problems. Now we are seeing this problem in the modern Angus. Breeders are starting to bring the tail heads down again but it was really bad in show cattle 10 years ago,” he says.

“The Holstein breeders figured this out a long time ago with their genetic type scores and type classification. They measured everything and correlated it with fertility and calving ease. The dairy industry insists now that judges select cattle that have considerable slope from hooks to pins.”

Some of these important structural traits have to be evaluated visually because there are no EPDs for conformation. “But some of these things are fairly easy to measure. You can easily see if a cow has slope from hooks to pins, especially if she has short summer hair; you can see the highlights of the hook and pin bones,” says Olson.

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