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0408 PD: Limit feeding heifers: Is it for you?

Maria Bendixen and Pat Hoffman Published on 27 February 2008

In agriculture we are always working with tighter and tighter budgets. One place there seems to be excess money spent is on replacement heifers.

When feeding high-quality crops, heifers often get too fat, and we try to limit their intakes of high-energy feed by giving them very low-quality forages. This will work, but there is an expense in feeding these forages. Straw has become a very expensive feed ingredient, especially when we look at the nutrient value it has.

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Pat Hoffman has done some studies at the Marshfield Ag Research Station on limit feeding heifers. The research is pretty convincing in favor of it. The benefits included less feed cost, less manure and cleaner bunks. This is really only an advantage in bred heifers. Heifers under 1 year old don’t eat that much to begin with and are more susceptible to stress-related problems.

Many producers are concerned that heifers will beller until they can’t stand to listen to them anymore. In the research trials this only lasted about a week and heifers got used to not having feed all the time. One thing to remember is that in order to limit feed you must have enough bunk space. Without that, you will have problems with the lighter heifers in the group.

Another concern that farmers have is that those limit-fed heifers will not milk as well as full-fed heifers when they get them into the barn. The study found almost no difference in the production records of 2-year-old cows that were limit fed versus those that were full fed. The data actually showed that the limit-fed heifers milked a little bit more. This was not a significant amount, only about 500 pounds per group, so increased milk production is not a reason to try it.

The main benefit is feed efficiency. [In the studies], heifers were fed at 100 percent of what they would eat, then 90 percent and 80 percent of the dry matter (DM) that they would consume. They found that limit-fed heifers grew at the same rate and were just as tall if not taller than the full-fed group. It is important to remember that these heifers were fed rations with the same amount of energy and protein, just different fiber levels.

One of the interesting things in the study was the significant reduction in manure production from the limit-fed heifers. This meant less pen cleaning and less manure to haul. Limit feeding did cause significant behavior changes in heifers. For one thing, they spent more time standing around and a little less time lying.

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In short, limit feeding can be a good cost-saving strategy in older heifers if you have enough bunk space and a good nutrition program.

References omitted but are available upon request at

—Excerpts from Dairy Frontiers, Vol. 1, No. 5

Maria Bendixen
Dairy and Livestock
Extension Specialist at
the University of Wisconsin

What other techniques and methods (feeding or otherwise) have you seen producers using recently to save money and time in raising heifers?

Producers will do a few other things to save money on the cost of rearing heifers. Commonly with high milk replacer prices they will spend some extra money on a high-quality calf starter and milk replacer in order to wean calves earlier and feed less milk replacer. Several in the area wean at 4 to 5 weeks. It takes tight management of the weaned calves and really good growth in the first 5 weeks to make it work.

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Pasturing older heifers takes quite a bit of labor cost out and many producers in the area use this method with supplementation to reduce labor and feed cost. Raising heifers is expensive no matter what you do and any effort to reduce cost should be weighed against the value of a fresh heifer in your herd, and how each decision affects your herd in the future.

Maria Bendixen, Dairy and Livestock Extension and Pat Hoffman, Marshfield Agricultural Research Station, University of Wisconsin

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