Replacement heifers are young, fertile cows that have been specially selected for their desirable genetics and are used to replenish a farmer’s herd to ensure they have enough calves to grow up for the year ahead.
Sometimes replacement heifers are selected out of the farmer’s existing herd, but sometimes they buy heifers with good genes from other farms or ranches.
In this article we’ll cover everything you need to know about replacement heifers, including what they are, what they are used for, and how they are different from a regular heifer, and why farmers don’t just raise their own calves from their existing herd.
What Are Replacement Heifers Used For?
Replacement heifers are used for breeding, especially in beef herds where it’s not economical for the farmer to let the herd raise calves naturally.
Replacement heifers have desirable genes and often come from a line of cattle with easy calving. This means the farmer can buy in replacements for the cows he sells off in any given year and give himself the best possible chance of the heifers raising a calf for him for the year after.
In dairy herds, it’s much more common for farmers to keep the herd number up simply by raising the female dairy calves that occur as a byproduct of the dairy industry.
Read More: Do Cows Need to be Pregnant To Produce Milk?
This is not always possible for beef farmers, where the cows only have a few years to grow as much as possible to maximize the profit at slaughter, so taking a year out to have a calf would have a huge impact economically on the farmer.
Instead, there are specific ranches called cow-calf operations, where ranchers raise beef cattle specifically to sell off the calves to other farmers, who will then feed and grow the calves until they are large enough to be slaughtered. (Usually at around three years)
What Do Replacement Heifers Replace?
Replacement heifers replace and replenish a livestock herd after the farmer sells off some cattle, or when the farmer wants to expand his herd.
The expenses that a replacement heifer replaces for a farmer include the costs of feeding a pregnant cow and calf, paying for veterinary checks, the labor costs associated with looking after a cow for an extra year while they give birth, and the costs involved with the risk pregnancies entail.
A beef cow costs up to $2,000 to buy, and they are worth even more when they are being sold for slaughter so even one cow lost due to calving issues would wipe out the savings made by not buying in replacement heifers instead.
What’s The Difference Between a Replacement Heifer and a Regular Heifer?
A replacement heifer is just a regular heifer that is bought in from a breeder to replace or replenish a farmer’s livestock herd.
The functional difference is that raising a heifer for breeding from a calf involves a lot more risk to the farmer than simply ordering a replacement heifer from a breeder that has already matured to the point of puberty.
According to the National Animal Disease Information Service in the UK, one out of every thirteen calves die before reaching adulthood.
Replacement heifers are more expensive than raising a calf, but it cuts out the most risky and labor intensive part of raising a cow so farmers have to weigh up their options.
How Do Farmers Choose Replacement Heifers?
Farmers usually buy their replacement heifers from a special cattle breeder called a cow-calf operation. These types of cattle breeders specialize in creating genetically desirable beef cattle.
Some of the desirable genetic traits of a replacement heifer include:
- Easy Calving (no calving problems)
- Fast Growing
- Good Natured
- Naturally Polled (in some breeds)
- Generally Healthy and Hardy
Additionally, farmers may opt to choose replacement heifers from different breeds of cow, to diversify their herd.
Read More: How Fast do Cows Grow?
Why Don’t Farmers Just Use Regular Cows?
Replacement heifers are just regular cows. The only difference is that replacement heifers are usually bought from a ranch that is set up specifically to raise beef calves to sell on to beef farmers. This type of operation is called a cow-calf operation or a single-suckler operation.
Cow-calf ranches have the benefit of very low operating costs, since they are simply allowing the cattle to graze freely on their land, and selling the calves they produce.
Some beef farmers do let their own cattle replenish themselves by raising their calves, while others prefer not to deal with the extra labour and feeding costs of a pregnant cow and buy replacement heifers instead.
To sum up, a replacement heifer is a fertile cow that is sold to farmers who want to expand their herds.
Replacement heifers are usually raised on specialist cattle breeding ranches called cow-calf operations, and are selected for their easy calving and fast growth.
Farmers may decide to buy in replacement heifers instead of breeding their own cows because there is a lot of risk and expense involved in raising a calf and looking after a cow during pregnancy.
Buying a replacement heifer (usually around one year old) alleviates the costs and minimizes risk and may work out as a cheaper option depending on the specific farming operation.
Stuart is the editor of Fauna Facts. He edits our writers’ work as well as contributing his own content. Stuart is passionate about sustainable farming and animal welfare and has written extensively on cows and geese for the site.