CALVING heifers a year earlier, as two-year-olds, is being weighed up by cattle producers looking to ramp up reproductive rates to rebuild herds.
The combination of downsized herds, improved pasture availability in many areas, investment in drought infrastructure and the likelihood of ongoing high prices for weaners is creating a strong argument for accelerated reproduction strategies.
Anecdotal evidence suggests in some regions cow herds are sitting around 30 per cent of pre-drought numbers.
Some beef industry advisors believe this creates an opportunity for those who typically calve heifers as two-and-a-half or three-year-olds to calve earlier.
NSW Department of Primary Industries beef development officer Todd Andrews said despite the late start to the season, many calves had developed well and the weights of the top heifers were very good.
"A lot of producers have spent money on supplementary or drought feeding infrastructure such as grain and hay storage and feeding equipment, and may be wondering how to best utilise those investments in the future" Mr Andrews said.
"Underlying all this is the incentive of strong cattle prices, with calves making $1,000 to $1,200, and the forecast for the market to be well-supported for some time.
"The bottom line is that producers with heifers worth up to $1,500 don't want to just park them for the next two years when the cattle market is so profitable. That is a lot of capital sitting idle."
Mr Andrews said joining well grown weaner heifers this November, rather than waiting until the following November, would not necessarily mean backing yourself into a corner.
"Should conditions turn difficult in spring or summer, producers can consider selling these heifers as pregnancy-tested-in-calf or for processing," he said.
"The worse cast scenario would be that it turns dry next winter when heifers are heavily pregnant. This could lead to calving problems for undernourished heifers, or heifers that would not have enough milk for their calves and not go back into calf themselves.
"This could be avoided if producers use low birthweight bulls and supplementary feed those heifers if necessary."
Mr Andrews said he was not suggesting this should be an aim for all producers, or that it might become a regular practice.
"However, there are a particular set of circumstances in play at the moment that make it worth considering, as there is likely to be enough financial benefit to outweigh the risks and extra management required."
Extension officers and consultants say the point of difference this year is that many have reduced breeding herds, retained a number of heifers as they were cheaper to feed than a mature cow in the drought and have invested in feeding infrastructure because of the drought.
"Therefore, they have the ability to look after heifers better than normal, so you could say it's a reasonable short-term option to help rebuild cattle numbers to try and get back to normal a bit sooner," said North Coast Local Land Services' Nathan Jennings.
While herd rebuilding is not taking place on the same scale in southern areas, the run of drier seasons in some beef areas has seen herds depleted and producers now also looking to lift numbers as quickly as possible.
South Australian agribusiness consultant Tara Graetz, Rural Directions, said most of the state's rebuilding regions were sheep focussed and those beef operations affected by bushfires were still recovering and despite good opening rains, do not yet have enough ground cover to put any confidence behind major rebuilds.
Seventy percent of SA - the majority of the north - remains drought declared.
Where there was capacity to lift numbers, the red hot cattle market was typically hampering buying in of stock, Ms Graetz said.
So accelerated reproduction strategies were also being keenly looked at.
"We see no issue with calving heifers as two-years-olds rather than waiting an extra year where good management is in place," Ms Graetz said.
"Nutrition is key, along with general health. Certainly, producers are looking to ensure their valuable heifers are not just passengers in a system."
Producers should have a clear budgeted plan prior to heading down that path, Mr Jennings said.
"Look at cashflow and determine where the costs versus possible benefits are for your business," he said.
"For example, is there more money in having more calves on the ground in 2021 or will there be more money holding these heifers and not having the calves available until 2022?
"This will differ for every producer depending on their system."
It wasn't a one-size-fits all option and the most critical factor a producer needed to consider was their capacity both physically and financially to provide adequate nutrition to the heifers, Mr Jennings said.
That included not only up to the point of joining for the first time for good development, but also possibly through her first lactation as well.
"This is likely to mean that some form of supplementary feeding will be required to address energy and/or protein shortfalls in the pasture base, and this is where producers need to plan and do their numbers as the amount of supplementary feed required will depend on the pasture base and seasonal conditions," he said.
"Generally speaking this is going to be far easier and cheaper for those with more fertile country and high quality pastures, as they will potentially be less reliant on having to provide supplements to maintain heifer condition."
Another important factor is bull selection.
Bulls suitable to join to heifers are required - those with positive calving ease traits, low birth weight and short gestation length.
However this is still not going to help if the heifers haven't been managed well, Mr Jennings said.
There should also be a planned exit strategy if seasonal conditions turn bad or supplement prices skyrocket.
Mr Andrews made the point that joining heifers at the end of this winter that normally wouldn't be joined until the following November would not necessarily mean backing yourself into a corner.
"Should things turn bad over summer, you can still get out of them without getting too burnt by selling as pregnancy-tested-in-calf or for meat," he said.
"The worse case scenario would be that it turns dry when you have heifers heavily in calf and they don't go back in calf again.
"But by the time she's four, she will still have had two calves."
Nutrition is key
Mr Jennings advised watching out for under-developed heifers which could lead to calving difficulties, failure to re-join, stunted or poorly grown cows and potentially reduced longevity in the herd.
The key to addressing all these factors is managing the nutrition available to the heifers, he said.
The nutrition needs to be adequate to ensure heifers are growing and maintaining a fat score of 2 to 3 to avoid being too lean and also being too fat.
So assessing heifer body condition frequently is required to enable adjustments to be made to the feed source on offer, he said.
How to select which heifers to join
How heavy and how old were the heifers when they were weaned? How heavy are they now and when will they be joined?
Answers to these questions enable a producer to work out what growth rates are required to ensure the heifer is developed enough by the time of joining, Mr Jennings said.
Producers should also consider how heavy the mature cows in the herd are, as this will help guide some growth targets.
As a guide minimum heifer weights at joining should be 60 to 65pc that of the mature cow weights in the herd.
"The target weight is not to be used as an average for the heifer herd, but must be reached by every heifer you wish to join," Mr Jennings emphasised.
After joining, the heifers still need to grow to achieve 80 to 85pc of mature cow weight and fat score 3 at calving.
If they fall below this threshold, there is higher risk of a slower return to oestrus, and a lighter calf.
Mr Jennings advises early weaning the calves from the heifers is a very valuable management tool to help protect heifers from running down their body condition too far in their first lactation and to help reduce the need for as much supplementary feeding.
He urges being realistic in growth rate expectations.
"Remember that a lactating first calf heifer is the hardest class of female to get back in calf so nutrition then is just as, if not more, important than the lead-up to her first joining. It will work far better with a smaller number managed well than trying to do it with large numbers managed poorly," he said.
For more information contact Todd Andrews on 0429 987 405 or Nathan Jennings 0437 083 147.
The story Producers weigh up earlier calving to rebuild faster first appeared on Farm Online.