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Heifers Grazing Winter Annual Forages

The Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s Sand Mountain Heifer Development Program recently completed its sixth consecutive year at the end of June. This demonstration project takes place annually at the Auburn University Sand Mountain Research and Extension Center (SMREC) in Crossville, Alabama and includes consigned heifers from beef cattle farms across the state. The program displays proper forage-based development of replacement females by utilizing winter annuals as the primary source of nutrition.

A team of Alabama Extension professionals created the project outline for spring calving herds. Regional Extension Agent Landon Marks and Extension Specialist Kent Stanford lead the project locally. Lisa Kriese-Anderson (retired Extension animal scientist) and Extension Beef Specialist Kim Mullenix have served on the team since the program began. Kriese-Anderson’s expertise with performance evaluation made the program possible. Mullenix provides forage analysis to ensure grazing management strategies align with the nutritional demands of young replacement heifers. In addition, the staff at SMREC are an integral part of this impactful demonstration.

Program Goals

The goals are simple.

  • Develop replacement heifers on winter annuals from post-weaning to post-breeding
  • Strive for average daily gains from 1.5 to 2 pounds
  • Use proper grazing management to minimize the need for supplemental feed
  • Utilize current estrus synchronization protocols and artificial insemination (AI)
  • Breed to a high accuracy, calving ease AI sire
  • Collect accurate data to allow for individual performance evaluation

Basic Program Information

The program is open to any beef producer, with preference given to those from northeast Alabama. Consignments are due by November 1, followed by screening of all females on the farm. Delivery to SMREC normally happens during the first week of January and the animals stay through late June. With a maximum of 60 head, the program encourages consignors to focus on the elite females from their herd that can go home and be productive for many years.

Designed for spring-calving herds, heifers go through a pre-breeding exam in March. The exam includes a reproductive tract score, pelvic measurement, and palpation. This exam is critical to identifying heifers with issues that would prevent them from conceiving. Owners are notified of examination results if action is necessary. Currently, the Select Synch + CIDR & Timed AI (seven-day program) is used, with heat detection/insemination from day seven through ten. Timed AI is used on any animal that does not exhibit a standing heat. Freeze branding of participating heifers is offered as an added bonus.

There is no sale component to this program. The objective is that these replacements and their offspring will help advance the herd genetics and performance for their current owners. Owners pay half of the $400 fee on delivery and the balance at pickup in June.

Annual Grazing

Approximately 2/3 of the 55 acres available are planted with annual ryegrass. Early and late season ryegrass varieties have been used and always include crimson clover. Small grains are included on the other 1/3 and provide early growth and grazing. Selected varieties are those routinely available at local farm supply stores. The flash drought in the fall of 2016 provided an unfortunate opportunity to gather data on late-planted winter annuals, as no research information was available for that situation.

The adjustment from diets fed at home to a diet solely consisting of high-quality winter annuals is a major factor that affects performance. Some animals take longer to acclimate when compared to their contemporaries. Age and body condition can vary significantly from one consignor group to another, but all animals have the same opportunity to reach their genetic potential on the annuals used for grazing. Additional supplementation has been provided for short periods during three of the 6 program years. These brief feeding periods were prompted when a lack of available forage dictated that hay and supplement were necessary.


Data is collected every 28 days, from delivery through breeding. At the program’s end, each animal has more than 70 data points for producers to analyze. The table below summarizes the program averages for some of the main production traits and measurements through the years. It is important to note there are vast differences each year in the genetics from participating farms and little similarity from one year to the next. Animal disposition can have a major influence on performance as well, with flighty cattle being more prone to lower gains. One popular practice is ultrasound data collection. A certified technician scans for back fat, rump fat, ribeye area (REA), and intramuscular fat (IMF). Past participants have used this information when deciding to retain ownership on the steer mates through Alabama Pasture to Rail.


Heifer Development Program Data

Beginning Weight (lbs.)602736741703641655
Breeding Weight (lbs.)790857882867826785
Average Daily Gain (lbs./day)1.731.641.851.861.851.0
Total Gain (lbs)188206232282306152
Frame Score5.
% Mature Weight at Breeding667070697164
Ultrasound Back Fat (in)
Ultrasound Ribeye Area (in2)8.3410.119.7610.989.9410.09
% Intramuscular Fat3.393.693.904.534.584.39


Need Assistance?

Every management practice performed in this program can be implemented on producer farms with careful planning. For help with your own replacement heifer development options, contact the Alabama Extension animal science and forages regional agent serving your county. If you would like to learn more about consigning heifers for the 2022 Sand Mountain Heifer Development Program, contact Marks at 256-706-0032 mlm0013@auburn.edu or Stanford at 256-557-1206 stanfmk@auburn.edu.

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