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Don't put your heifers' growth in neutral

Jason Leonard Published on 21 May 2010

A goal for calf raisers, which has been endorsed by the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association, is for calves to double their birth weight by 60 days of age. During this time, young herd replacements should also add 4 to 5 inches of height to their structural growth. To achieve these benchmarks, calf raisers will need to feed a full potential nutrition program, including a 28 percent protein milk replacer, along with a 22 percent protein, highly palatable calf starter.

To make the most from an investment in full potential feeding, and keep this growth momentum in drive after weaning, it’s important to reduce stress as much as possible on heifers that are transitioning from individual housing to a post-weaning group setting for the first time.

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Smooth transition, low stress

Calves are ready for weaning once they consistently consume between 1.5 to 2 pounds of grain a day for three days and are meeting growth goals. Weaning is best accomplished by reducing milk or milk replacer feedings to just once per day for one week.

During this time, calves should remain in individual housing and stay on the same calf starter to reduce transition stress from milk feeding. In fact, it is recommended to continue feeding calf starter until calves reach 12 weeks old, so they continue to consume adequate nutrients during this transition. Calves will need available nutrients to remain healthy and growing through the stress of weaning. Additional stressors, such as dehorning or vaccination, should be avoided during weaning time.

Within a week of weaning, calves are ready to be moved into group housing. They should initially be moved into groups of no more than six or seven to help ease their social adjustment. “Super hutches” work well to limit groups to appropriate sizes. Another approach that works well for gradual transition to group housing are calf barns with small pens divided into individual places. As the picture shows, dividers are used to separate pre-weaned calves to limit nose-to-nose contact. Once calves have been weaned, the dividers are removed and each calf now has a couple of roommates.

Feed consumption should quickly increase after weaning from 4 or 5 pounds a day, reaching upwards to 10 to 12 pounds as calves turn 12 weeks old. Post-weaning calves should be offered grain free-choice – meaning 24-hour-a-day access to feed – to ensure their growth as well as support overall optimal health.

Hay should not be offered to calves younger than 12 weeks old. Calves tend to overeat hay, especially if it is high-quality with a good aroma, which reduces their energy intake from grain and hampers development of rumen papillae.

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From 12 weeks to 6 months

By 3 months old, heifers are ready for transition to a grower feed. During this time, producers should target a consistent ration that delivers 18 percent protein through the grower and dry hay. Grower feed can be introduced gradually over one week’s time, starting with a 25-to-75 ratio of grower-to-calf starter initially.

Hay can begin to be fed once heifers are eating adequate amounts of the grower feed. Producers should offer just 1 or 2 pounds initially to each calf and gradually work more into their feeding program. Dry hay should be high-quality and provide around 18 percent protein to the young heifers. A mix of alfalfa and grass hay works well.

Once heifers have mastered this transition feeding program, grain can be reduced to 5 or 6 pounds per head per day and free-choice hay should be offered. Access to clean, free-choice water is as important at this stage as it was when they were calves.

By 12 weeks old, heifers are old enough to be moved into larger groups. It is recommended to maintain 30 to 40 square feet of lying space for each heifer, not including the manure alley or feedbunk. Calves will need at least that much lying space, separate from feed or scrape alleys. Each group should have enough bunk space that all animals can eat at the same time.

Ventilation is key for growing heifers as well. Oftentimes, post-weaning heifers are housed in an older, retrofit facility such as a bank barn or old milking barn. This can function quite well, as long as ventilation needs are met. Heifers need 20 cubic feet per minute of air exchange to remove any airborne pathogens and bacteria. Respiratory disease is common in young heifers, especially in spring and fall months. Producers should avoid the common pitfall of closing up barns in cooler temperatures. While drafts should be avoided, air movement is just as important to healthy growth.

At 6 months old, fermented forages can be introduced as part of a properly balanced heifer ration. It’s important to choose a consistent, high-quality feedstuff, such as corn silage, as the base for this ration. Lactating herd refusals should not be fed to young heifers because they need a consistent source of nutrition in their ration. Those feedstuffs are better used for bred and older heifers. To help the transition to forages, producers may want to top-dress the grower feed, up to 2 or 3 pounds per heifer.

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Monitor growth progress

Heifers that are fed to their full potential will more aggressively reach growth targets and can move more quickly through a heifer-raising system. We recommend measuring heifers at each group transition to establish benchmarks to compare growth against. For producers who have more difficulty weighing or taping heifers, simply placing a mark on a gate or wall can be an easy way to monitor growth. Usually, if heifers are routinely reaching growth targets and are in good body condition, taking bodyweights may not be needed. If producers spot heifers that aren’t doing well, they should hold them back a pen move.

Post-weaning heifers are an important group on the dairy, and providing them the nutrients they need to grow will ensure that any progress made during the first weeks of life isn’t given back after weaning. Heifers under 6 months old are the most feed-efficient on the dairy, and by effectively managing them early in life, producers will be able to take advantage of better performance down the road. PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request by sending an e-mail to .

Jason Leonard
  • Jason Leonard

  • Calf and Heifer Specialist
  • Land O'Lakes Purina Feed
  • Email Jason Leonard

Five important tips for raising post-weaning heifers

  1. Practice a gradual feed transition to avoid a growth slump caused by abrupt change from a calf starter to a grower.
  2. Offer free-choice feed access to post-weaning heifers 24 hours a day.
  3. Monitor ventilation to ensure an adequate air exchange to remove airborne pathogens that cause respiratory disease.
  4. Wait to feed hay until heifers are successfully transitioned to grower feed.
  5. Limit transition groups to six or seven heifers initially after weaning.

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