Missouri ranks third in the nation in the total number of beef cows, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That represents a significant portion of the state economy, worth $1.9 billion in 2017.
The Show-Me-Select Replacement Heifer Program improves the production of quality beef by focusing on cattle before they’re born.
Each heifer enrolled must follow a health program that involves a pre-breeding evaluation, vaccinations and pregnancy examinations.
“Because the vast majority of farms and ranches have cow calf operations, one of the keys in terms of improving economic returns to these operations is improving reproductive efficiency,” said David Patterson, founder of the program.
Although the program does not affect the taste of beef, FDA-approved artificial insemination and genomic testing ensures healthier cows.
In the late 1960s, an influx of European breeds was introduced into the U.S. genetic pool. The foreign cattle posed health risks for heifers during reproduction.
“Cattle were larger, with higher maintenance requirements, more milk production, higher production potential.” Patterson said. “As a result of that, we began to see real problems in terms of reproduction in younger-age females.”
The unpredictability of heifers producing large calves that are difficult to raise, especially in the developmental phase, sparked the program’s involvement with new reproductive technologies such as artificial insemination, ultrasound and genomic testing.
“In the beef world, artificial insemination is used more in the heifers than it is in the cows, and it’s really important for that heifer to be bred to a bull with smaller calves,” said Scott Poock, associate extension professor and veterinarian for the program.
“Well, if I use an [artificial insemination] proven bull I can be more sure that they’re going to be smaller calves than if I use an unproven or natural bull.”
After going through the health program, producers can choose to sell their heifers at a Show-Me-Select sale locations, but over half of the producers choose to keep a good portion of their heifers.
“Of the 150,000 enrolled, they roughly only sell about 40,000,” Patterson said. “A lot of those heifers stay on the farms and ranches where they’re developed so they re-enter the herd.”
Fall sales are held across the state into the second week of December in Joplin, Kirksville, Kingsville, Farmington, Fruitland and Palmyra.
“Whether you are going to sell the heifer or not, I think it’s a great screening tool to either sell or produce for your own herd a better heifer that’s going to stay in your herd longer, ultimately make better beef and make you more money,” Poock said.
Since 1997, Show-Me-Select has sold more than 36,466 heifers across 20 states, making over $53.9 million in gross sales.
“If producers begin making these value-added decisions to improve reproduction and genetics of the cattle they’re producing, they actually have an opportunity to evaluate the economics of those investments as to how those heifers then sell through the program,” Patterson said. “And they’ve seen substantial gains relative to technology adoption.”
Patterson believes that one of the biggest outcomes is the program’s ability to introduce new technology to the industry.
“The newer technology is either current or emerging both in terms of reproductive and genomics really afford producer’s risk management,” he said. “As technologies improve, we’ve been able to make changes in cow herds more rapidly than we could 20 years ago.”
Using superior sires has proved to be more progressive in terms of pricing, as well.
“Right now if you want to get a decent bull, you’re probably looking at $4,000,” Poock said “I can go and buy semen from a $10,000 bull for $20 a unit. So I can get it relatively cheaply for superior genetics.”
Patterson ensured during the inception of the program that there would be benchmarks from producers to evaluate the success of the program.
That’s where the veterinarians support becomes vital to the process, he said. They are the only ones qualified to give the brucellosis vaccine, pelvic measurements, reproductive tract score, a pregnancy diagnosis and testing.
“The way things work now is that we can set them up on a synchronization program so all the heifers in a particular group can be inseminated on the same day of the breeding season,” Patterson said. “That minimizes labor and really concentrates things to where you’re able to use that technology.”
Follow the leader
The Show-Me-Select Heifer program is a non-profit organization with a foundation that began in Kentucky when Patterson and a group of progressive cattle producers did graduate research over heifer development’s impact on reproductive outcomes. From that, the Bourbon County Elite Heifer program was born in 1991.
“Producers didn’t always focus all of their attention on developing heifers,” West Central Regional Coordinator David Hoffman said. “A lot of times the producers focus was on the cows because that’s where they were able to see the biggest economic benefit, having those cows raise the calf every year and marketing it.”
The initial funding for Show-Me-Select came from MU Extension out of the outreach development fund. More recently, the university has supported enhancement of the database.
“The program could not have been developed to the extent that it has without the support in those early years from outreach development, and that was a competitive in house program,” Patterson said.
Other states have already tried to replicate the Show-Me-Select Heifer Program’s model. Kansas has been working on a similar program for at least six years and Iowa as well for at least two years.
“The future of the program is bright,” Hoffman said.