Turning replacement heifers into lifelong early calvers through AI

Mar 15, 2013

The J. R. Simplot Co., started in 1929 as a oneman farming operation by J.R. “Jack” Simplot, has become a leading expert in the heifer artificial insemination (AI) arena in the last five years.

J.R. Simplot began his cattle business over 40 years ago as a way to utilize large quantities of potato byproducts generated by Simplot’s food processing plants. The cattle business grew, and today, Simplot is involved in all aspects of beef production.

The cattle are raised in two feedlots and over a dozen ranches in Idaho, Oregon, Utah and Nevada.

The company has mastered vertical integration that includes seed production, farming, fertilizer manufacturing, frozenfood processing and food brands, but has most recently combined resources with ABS Global Inc. to build a professional heifer development program called the Sagebrush Heifer Alliance.

The AI program started with Simplot’s plan to improve their own herd and increase consistency by using AI with ABS Global bulls on about 5,000 heifers.

Dick Frederickson, DVM, has served as the Simplot ranch and feedlot staff veterinarian for 25 years. According to Frederickson, Simplot began the AI program at the ranch for a couple of key reasons. The majority of the acreage Simplot cattle utilize is desert, and designing a cow herd that could weather the desert climate was a priority.

“We had been buying our replacement heifers for about 10 years and just not getting the consistency we wanted. Then we decided we wanted to improve our cow herd and get more uniformity and had some more specific goals. We decided if we were going to improve our cow herds, we had to do it ourselves,” Frederickson said.

The Simplot breeding program is a Hereford and Angus cross, allowing them to breed for maximum efficiency, and build a moderate-framed, efficient, English-bred, crossbred cow herd, according to Frederickson. “We also decided we wanted to try to capture heterosis,” he added.

In the Simplot breeding program, all black cattle are bred to Herefords, and females with white markings are bred back to Angus bulls. They use Charolais bulls for a terminal cross.

Simplot started breeding heifers through AI about 10 years ago and currently breeds around 4,000 heifers. “We bring them in to the feedlot and start getting them into breeding condition. We feed them MGA and then use a timed breeding system to get them to cycle. We breed them to just two Angus sires. We like the timed breeding protocol because we know that the heifer calves we get will make good maternal replacements. Then we watch them closely for those heifers that didn’t breed on the first cycle that come in to heat and then give them one more shot at AI. We use Angus bulls as clean up sires,” said Dr. Randall Raymond, Simplot Livestock Co. director of research and veterinary services.

Their success with their own herd led them to look at branching out, and taking their custom-feeding operation a step farther. Within a couple of years, Simplot had put together an experienced crew and was ready to share the benefits of their AI program with outside producers, thus the beginning of the Sagebrush Heifer Development program.

Simplot provides the cattle care, including nutrition, health care, and lowstress cattle handling, while ABS Global provides the genetics, synchronization, semen and breeding.

The producer selects the bull and the AI program, based on recommendations from the Simplot staff.

Bronc May, Simplot’s custom cattle-feeding manager, said they get them started right with minerals, vitamins, and a growing plan that works to get the heifer cycling at the right time. May works with each producer on an individual basis to develop the best program for their operation.

Their nutrition plan plays a huge role in the success of the program. The heifers are fed a ration with enough energy to keep them growing and start cycling, but also limited to control average daily gain.

“We feed to a body conditioning score, as opposed to a weight. We try holding them back and increase the energy density,” said Raymond. Their average heifer weight is around 800 to 900 pounds.

The primary goal for the alliance is to turn replacement heifers into lifelong early calvers, both for their own cattle and for their customers. The program was based off of Simplot’s proven success with their cow/calf herds, and their experience with front-loading their calving season.

Darrell Wilkes, U.S. beef supply systems manager for ABS Global, said “If they start late, they stay late.”

Wilkes also pointed out in an ABS article that a Texas A&M study showed that the only cows with a positive lifetime return on investment are those that had their first calf early in the calving season.

Each program is tailored to tighten calving time, improve genetics, and increase herd fertility. Most of their customers bring their heifers to Simplot in mid-November, leaving them for 170 to 200 days. The cost varies, depending on a number of things, including size of the cow herd, the weight of the calves, the breeding fees and the number of days in the feedlot.

The program is designed for efficiency and strives for low-stress cattle handling. ABS does all of the AI breeding. “We’ll breed an average of 160 to 170 heifers per hour. That’s running a double breeding barn, with four stations,” Frederickson said.

The program has been a success. Multiple AI cycles give producers an opportunity to have heifers bred to ABS bulls, allowing for more uniformity. May said their success rate with the AI averages about 62 percent, and if the heifers remain for second heat cycle, it is as high as 84 percent.

Simplot currently AI’s about 4,000 of their own heifers each year, with an additional 1,500 to 3,000 outside heifers, according to Steve Scribner, Simplot’s ranch manager. “We’ve got it refined. We have the mechanics right. We have a good relationship with ABS. Our success rate has been good,” Scribner said. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor