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Heifer nutrition: Keeping your investment growing

Troy Wistuba for Progressive Dairyman Published on 24 August 2017
Balance heifer diets to improve performance

Each day, multiple times a day, you carefully calculate the amount of milk replacer and calf starter you feed each calf. But what about after weaning? What if you place the same level of focus on heifers 24 weeks and older?

By making a few minor management adjustments to your heifers’ nutrition, you could help them maximize their production potential. Research shows consistent, well-balanced diets fed to heifers 24 weeks old and older typically:



  1.  improved immune system function
  2. Have lower cull rates and death loss
  3. Achieve breeding size earlier
  4. Enter the lactating herd sooner
  5. Produce more milk during their first lactation

Extending your focus past the calf barn or hutches allows you to continue building upon the foundation laid during pre-weaning. Here are three simple management tweaks to provide heifers a convenient, consistent and balanced diet.

1. Add a tub

No matter your management style, heifers don’t require much day-to-day interaction. Why overcomplicate their rations?

Simply adding a lick tub can help deliver nutrients required to develop heifers with an easy-to-use program and minimal labor. Just place it in the pen or pasture, and you’re done. It’s that easy. When selecting a lick tub, look at the ingredient list and whether the tub is all-weather to ensure it’s what your heifers need and can be used where they need it.

Research at Purdue University showed after three months, dairy heifers with access to lick tubs gained 0.2 pound more per head per day than those without. This increased growth equals a shorter time to first service, which may allow your heifers to enter the milking string sooner.


2. Prepare for puberty

Think about your breeding program. When are you first breeding your heifers?

According to the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association Gold Standards, heifers should be bred when they reach 55 percent of their mature bodyweight. For Holsteins, this is typically at 12 to 13 months old or approximately 800 pounds. For Jerseys, breeding age is around 10 to 12 months or approximately 550 pounds.

Are you hitting these industry standards or your personal goals? If not, you may need to troubleshoot your heifer nutrition program.

As dairy heifers approach puberty, their bodies naturally need more nutrients. An adequate supply of crude protein, energy, and trace vitamins and minerals in heifer rations help them reach puberty at the target age.

Research has shown positive results when providing a supplement containing zinc, magnesium, copper and cobalt, including improved pregnancy rates, fewer days open and fewer services per conception.


3. Focus on nutrients

Most heifer rations are simple but often unbalanced. Adjusting a single nutrient, such as protein or a trace mineral, can help balance your heifers’ rations.

Increasing crude protein levels can enhance high-forage or pasture-based diets. Research has shown well-balanced, high-protein heifer diets support optimum milk production and more than 3.5 percent fat-corrected milk during the first 120 days of the first lactation.

Hoof and claw health is also linked with adequate heifer nutrition. Research studies have revealed supplementing heifer rations with trace minerals can help decrease the incidence and severity of white-line disease by as much as 35 percent, sole ulcers by as much as 80 percent and claw lesions by as much as 17 percent at 60 days after calving.

Whether you adjust nutrients or add a mineral mix, it’s easy to balance heifer diets to improve performance. Discuss your ideas with your nutritionist or veterinarian to determine which minor changes can have a big impact on your heifers and their future potential.  end mark

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Troy Wistuba
  • Troy Wistuba

  • Director of Dairy Technical Solutions
  • Purina Animal Nutrition
  • Email Troy Wistuba