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1207 PD: Start investing in the future today with proper heifer care

Elliot Block Published on 30 November 2007

The investment in proper heifer care is not an overnight return. Almost two years of feeding and care goes into heifers before they start producing milk. That’s why getting heifers into the milking string sooner while ensuring proper health is so critical.

According to Dr. Bob James, professor and dairy nutritionist at Virginia Tech, nutrition is one of the key elements to help heifers reach breeding age earlier and enter the milking string sooner.

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The ration solves half the puzzle

Producers often believe they can achieve earlier breeding age by simply increasing ration protein and energy levels, but this can result in overconditioned heifers. Although these heifers reach breeding weight quickly, the extra weight, made up of excess fat, can result in breeding problems and calving difficulties down the road. Matching weight gain with skeletal growth is key because extra weight can be carried over a larger frame. A balanced ration that promotes rumen microbial activity and provides the right nutrients for improved rumen fermentation can help your heifers optimize growth in overall frame and capacity.

James turns to byproducts that provide adequate energy and protein to achieve the nutritional needs for healthy growth at an economical pace. Two commonly used byproducts are distillers grains and brewers grains because they are readily available and a good source of protein. Vegetable and fruit waste from local growers, potato and bakery waste and even the byproduct from making soy beverages are all cost-effective byproducts producers can use. Although these byproducts are cheap and available, they do take a certain amount of managing. James advises frequent testing of byproduct dry matter, protein and fat levels to ensure the ration is balanced properly.

Other experts also recommend rumen fermentation enhancers (RFEs) as a feed ingredient that works well in heifer rations. These ingredients supply rumen microbes with the essential nutrients to increase microbial protein production and improve rumen fermentation. This, in turn, offers continued growth and frame maintenance through calving. RFEs also allow heifers to devote more energy to productivity and ultimately profitability because volumetric growth matches weight gain with skeletal growth.

For heifers that are lagging behind the group, RFEs can help them catch up. They are able to more efficiently convert feed to growth, which will help them keep up with other heifers and reach their genetic potential at an appropriate age.

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Matching heifer weight gain and skeletal growth to encourage earlier calving is critical to the profitability of your dairy. One research study found that it takes nearly 9,000 pounds less milk to pay off the rearing costs of a heifer calving at 20 to 22 months when compared to a heifer that calves at 26 to 28 months, respectively (see Table 1).

Heifers with increased volumetric growth reach breeding age sooner and enter the milking string earlier at a size and weight closer to maturity. And first-calf heifers that calve closer to their mature size and weight can use more energy for milk production rather than growth.

Management is the second piece

Beyond the ration, James cites management practices as another major player when it comes to getting heifers in the milking herd sooner. Poor condition can have an adverse effect on heifer health and could result in poor growth or decreased intakes. Because management can have such an impact on how soon your heifers meet their full potential, consider the following areas to focus your time:

• Weighing and measuring

Producers often overlook weighing and measuring heifers because it can be labor intensive. Even though it may take some extra work, having data that reflects how your heifers are doing can help chart the progress of your heifer-raising program, says James. Also, it can help you identify heifers that have reached 55 percent of their mature bodyweight so you know they are ready for breeding.

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Some feed companies even offer tape and measure programs. These programs focus on comparing heifers fed different rations while identifying the right time for heifers to be bred. Consult your feed representative to discuss a similar program to record heifer growth.

• Facilities

Heifer facilities should promote labor efficiency in feeding and handling dairy heifers as well as facilitating safety to those handling heifers. Heifer facilities vary throughout the country depending on temperature and weather. For example, in the Southeast region of the United States, very little housing is offered to heifers because of mild temperatures. But in the Northeast, dairies must provide housing for heifers so they can continue to gain weight during colder winter months. Take into consideration where you’re located and how weather will affect heifer growth.

• Health

Heifer health is important to prevent disease, which can slow growth and delay pregnancies. Proper vaccination and treatment of disease can ensure healthy calves that are ready to join the milking string on time. Keeping heifers healthy can also lower death losses, so fewer replacements must be purchased to offset cull rates. Consult your veterinarian to discuss proper heifer vaccination programs.

When are heifers ready to be bred?

Producers commonly ask how to tell if their heifers are big or old enough for breeding. The National Research Council recommends that heifers are ready for breeding when they reach 55 percent of their mature bodyweight. Although some producers prefer to discuss heifer gain in terms of average daily gain (ADG), a percent of mature bodyweight spans all herds where breed, target weight and breeding goals may differ. The chart in Table 2 on page 46 is a guide for the weight heifers should reach before first breeding and at each calving to reach their proper mature weight.

According to University of Wisconsin Dairy Extension Specialist Pat Hoffman, skeletal measurements, such as hip and wither height, are also important to examine when it comes to the optimal breeding size. The charts in Table 3 are standards created by Hoffman that identify when heifers are ready for breeding.

Heifers are an expensive investment, but when well-managed, you’ll receive a profitable return. Providing proper nutrition and care for your heifers today can ensure they are ready to breed earlier and enter the milking herd sooner. PD

References omitted but are available upon request at

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