Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

0609 PD: Raising calves and heifers for peak milk production

Dave Lahr Published on 09 April 2009

A calf is born with great genetic potential for a lifetime of milk production. But there are many factors that can limit her longevity in the herd and economic return. Controlling these factors through a well-managed calf and heifer program will help assure maximum lifetime productivity.

Set growth goals
It’s important to set appropriate growth goals, monitor performance and adjust your program as needed. Heifers are most efficient at an early age, so set a goal that more than 50 percent of a heifer’s height growth should occur in the first six months of life. However, weight gain should be more evenly distributed throughout her development. Heifers should be at least 12.5 months old at breeding, resulting in at least 22 months old at calving. You can achieve this by closely monitoring the heifer’s health, environment, management and nutrition. Heifers who are fed sub-optimal diets will have delayed estrus and calve past 24 months of age. This increases feed costs, reduces lifetime milk production and increases the number of replacements needed.



You should breed heifers when they reach 60 percent of their mature weight. Again, set some goals: Feed and manage large-breed replacement heifers so that, between 13 to 15 months of age, they’ll weigh 800 to 875 pounds and stand 51 to 52 inches at the withers. If you target a calving age earlier than 24 months, heifers must be accelerated in the months pre-breeding.

For optimum heifer performance, height and bone mass must be developed with proper conditioning. Overconditioned heifers have decreased milk production, increased incidence of calving difficulties and reduced conception rates. Maintaining replacement heifer goals to maximize height and weight without excessive fat accumulation will be cost-effective and help heifers reach their genetic potential.

Create a plan
Once you’ve determined the growth goals, it’s essential to create a nutrition plan that will help your calves and heifers reach those goals. “Planning your work and working your plan” goes a long way toward achieving optimum health for your calves and heifers, and prepares them for peak milk production. Here are some nutritional recommendations for each stage of development:

• Birth to weaning
Calves must receive sufficient colostrum from the moment they’re born. Colostrum provides immunoglobulins and other immune- stimulating factors to build resistance to disease and infection. Feed one gallon to an average size Holstein calf as soon as possible after birth. After the calf has nursed as much colostrum from a nipple bottle as it desires, force-feed the remainder with an esophageal feeder. Freeze excess colostrum for calves whose dams freshen without high-quality colostrum. A well-balanced dry cow program will benefit colostrum quality and improve the health and future productivity of the newborn calf.

Research shows that calves have the most growth efficiency while on a milk diet up to five weeks old. Feed pasteurized whole milk or a high-quality milk replacer. Milk replacer management needs to control feeding temperature (95°F to 105°F at feeding), percent solids (12.5 to 13.5 percent) and caloric intake relative to the environmental temperature. Near the end of this five-week period, calves should be transitioning to dry feed. A calf should double its birth weight by 56 days old.


Higher calf starter intake results in faster growth rates. Keep the starter fresh by offering small amounts and removing unconsumed calf starter daily. Wean calves when they are consuming 2 pounds or more of starter daily, usually between four to six weeks old.

Note that feeding milk alone will not stimulate rumen development, which requires a combination of rumen bacteria, water and fermentable carbohydrates. As starter feed intake occurs, starch becomes available for fermentation. And since rumen bacteria can only grow with adequate fluid, providing water daily stimulates rumen bacteria growth. Feeding unprocessed hay or other high-fiber ingredients before calves are consuming adequate amounts of calf starter (about six pounds daily for Holsteins), slows rumen development.

• Weaning to three months
Early weaning is recommended because it significantly reduces feed and labor costs. For optimum health, growth and economics, manage calves to maximize early starter intake. Calves consuming less than 1 percent of their bodyweight in starter feed, or not gaining sufficient weight, should not be weaned until feed consumption and performance improve. Weaning calves older than eight weeks old greatly increases feed costs with no performance benefits.

The growth rate of the young calf is dependent on starter feed intake. Poor-quality or unpalatable feeds will reduce feed intake, slow rumen development and decrease a calf’s rate of growth. Silage, pasture and high-moisture byproducts are not recommended before four months old because the young calf cannot consume adequate dry matter to meet its nutrient needs. That’s why high-quality, palatable starter feeds are a vital part of a sound heifer replacement program.

• Three months to breeding
The goal during this period is to develop animal frame and height, not fat. The growing heifer can now utilize more roughage and limited amounts of grain. Forage quality will determine the amount of grain fed and protein added in the ration. Provide a minimum of 15 to 18 percent crude protein plus sufficient energy, minerals and vitamins to support a 1.8- to 2.4-pound average daily gain. Heifers under 400 pounds bodyweight can gain 2.4 pounds per day without becoming overconditioned – if there is adequate protein in their diet.

Formulate grain rations using corn, oats or other grains plus a quality pellet supplement. If using non-pelleted protein and mineral sources, be sure that separation is not occurring. Always provide a fresh, clean supply of water.


Using corn co-products in heifer rations can work very well, often resulting in significant ration cost savings. If you feed corn co-products, it’s essential to analyze for key nutrients so you can take advantage of these economical sources of energy, protein, phosphorus and other nutrients. These co-products need to be balanced with forages to maximize efficiency. Test all byproducts for nutritional values and (if you suspect them) for mold, yeast and mycotoxins.

Between three and nine months, mammary tissue grows 3.5 times faster than body tissue. Feeding heifers for optimal growth during this period can lead to a yield of up to 3,000 pounds more milk in the first lactation.

• Breeding to 60 days pre-calving
Manage heifers to gain 1.6 to 1.9 pounds daily during this period. Target the body condition you want at freshening. This is important because, in early lactation, these heifers cannot consume enough feed to meet requirements for maintenance, growth and milk production. Proper condition pre-calving will help heifers return to a positive energy balance sooner, show estrus post-calving sooner and improve conception rates.

There are many options for rations using grains, forages, byproducts, protein sources or premixes. Minerals and vitamins are essential to ensure skeletal development and adequate mineral reserve for animal longevity.

Watch for coccidiosis – a common diarrhea caused by intestinal parasites. It can reduce growth rate, cut feed efficiency and depress the immune system. Ionophores and other coccidiostats are effective tools in controlling coccidiosis and improving feed efficiency when they’re used as directed.

• 30 to 60 days pre-calving
During the last two months of gestation, heifers should gain 1.7 to 2 pounds per day. Manage them to calve at 85 to 90 percent of their mature weight. Heifers should continue to grow, but maintain body condition during this period. The fetal calf is growing rapidly, and a balanced ration is critical for heifer and calf health.

Springing heifers are typically moved to the dry cow lot at this stage, but keep them separate from dry cows if possible. If not, then provide a minimum of 30 inches bunk space per animal.

• 30 days before calving
Place heifers on pre-fresh or close-up ration three to five weeks before freshening. The protein and energy needs of heifers are greatly increased during this time due to fetal growth and mammary development. The ration should promote rumen papillae development and allow rumen microbes adequate time to adjust between earlier rations and the lactation ration in terms of energy and protein density.

Avoid excessive sodium prior to calving, as it can contribute to udder edema. High levels of feed discarded from lactating cows may provide too much sodium. Lice and worms should also be treated before calving. Consult with your herd veterinarian for a complete vaccination and health program pre- and post-calving.

It takes a lot of careful planning and diligent work to raise heifers from birth to calving their own offspring. If you manage their growth, nutrition and health with an eye toward both short-term and long-term economics, you’ll maximize your cows’ productivity for their lifetime. PD

Dave Lahr is a nutritionist at the Form-A-Feed and TechMix companies, headquartered in Stewart, Minnesota.

Dave Lahr
Form-A-Feed and TechMix