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We need a paradigm shift in heifer management

Doug Scholz Published on 21 September 2009

When milk prices are low and feed costs are high, it’s not surprising that most dairy producers’ day-to-day priorities focus on management areas that directly impact short-term cash flow.

But history suggests that even in times of high milk prices and economic prosperity, certain farm management areas are traditionally underserved and potential profits are left on the table. Heifer management may be the most common example.



Even though heifers represent tremendous value potential and the future profitability of the herd, heifer management typically takes a backseat to other daily challenges and is marked by inconsistencies that result in lost value.

Wide variances in heifer growth rates, reproductive performance, calving age and health protocols are common and represent thousands of dollars in lost income potential.

Healthy and well-developed heifers provide several economic advantages for dairy producers – they reach breeding size sooner, get to the milking string earlier, have lower rearing costs and have a significant financial impact on a dairy’s long-term sustainability and prosperity.

These days, with the increased availability and usage of tools like DNA-marker technology, reproductive tract scoring, sexed semen and timed artificial insemination programs, the investment in heifers is rising. And consequently, so is their potential financial value to the herd.

But too often, producers are not capturing maximum value from their heifers. The lost value typically stems from a lack of formalized protocols and an inconsistent approach to heifer management, which results in diminished growth and inefficient reproduction.


It’s time to take a fresh look at heifer programs and adopt a more long-term view and health-driven approach to nurturing the money-makers of the future. The first step is to establish a set of protocols that will ensure heifers are on the appropriate nutrition, vaccination and management programs.

Involve your veterinarian
Successful business owners often credit their organization’s prosperity to hiring good people and empowering them to apply their specific skills and expertise. Heifer management is an area of significant opportunity for producers to work with their veterinarians to improve current practices and capture maximum value.

Taking into account the unique aspects of each producer’s operation, the herd veterinarian will be able to tailor convenient heifer management guidelines and protocols that fit well with standard operating procedures and are designed to meet the producer’s goals.

Help heifers start fast
The period from calving to three months of age is the most critical time for heifer growth and development. Heifers with a history of disease, insufficient nutrition or housed in overcrowded conditions as young calves are likely to perform poorly in both reproduction and milk production.

Getting heifers off to a fast start is the key to ensuring they reach breeding size on time and in good health.

By paying close attention to the following management areas you can help heifers reach their full potential and deliver maximum profitability.


Providing calves with a clean, dry environment is of utmost importance. Young calves have developing immune systems and are especially vulnerable to viral and bacterial pathogens. Calf bedding should be changed frequently to maintain a clean environment and reduce moisture from urine and feces. Calves also need access to clean, fresh air, so it’s important that housing is well-ventilated.

Calves need adequate nutrition for health and growth, including a sufficient supply of high-quality colostrum and milk. Four quarts of colostrum within the first six hours of life is essential. Calves should receive transition milk or milk replacer on days two and three and milk replacer or pasteurized milk on days 4 through 14.

Scours prevention
Dairy heifers with a history of being treated for scours have been found to be nearly three times more likely than healthy herdmates to calve later than 30 months old. Preventing calf scours requires careful management of the dam, the environment and the calf.

The first step in a scours management program is immunization of the dam with an effective vaccine to deliver passive immunity via high levels of maternal antibodies passed to the calf through colostrum. Vaccinating the dam as early as possible will optimize antibodies in the colostrum.

Protection from major respiratory, reproductive and clostridial diseases is needed at two to four weeks of age. Calves should be vaccinated for BVD, IBR, PI3, BRSV, lepto hardjo-bovis and the primary clostridial pathogens.

Booster doses may be needed at six to nine weeks old. Work with your veterinarian to determine the best protocol for your calves and always make sure vaccinations are administered according to label directions.

Movement and grouping
Heifer calves should be grouped according to their nutritional and management needs. Placing three to four animals in a group for one month postweaning allows calves to gradually adjust to group living. At four to six months old, calves can be placed in groups of 10 to 12 animals within 100 pounds of each other in bodyweight.

Balance rations to optimize growth Managing rations appropriately to provide the right mix of energy, protein, fiber and minerals will help heifers reach breeding size and condition more quickly.

As heifers develop they have special nutrition requirements and their rations should be adjusted periodically to achieve growth milestones while avoiding overconditioning.

Calf starter
To ensure a successful transition to a postweaning diet, heifer calves should be eating at least 1.5 pounds of calf starter per day before they are weaned. At the time of weaning, calves should be fed rations designed for volumetric growth. This includes providing a free-choice grain mixture and an ample supply of high-quality forage.

Rumen development
Adequate feed intake increases rumen development. Calves are able to function as fully developed ruminants after 4 to 6 months old and developing a fully functional rumen is an important part of early calf nutrition. Sufficient water intake is crucial to increase intake of dry grain and forage, which promotes rumen development.

Total mixed rations
Typically, heifer rations should be adjusted to meet increasing energy and growth requirements at eight-week intervals. Total mixed rations (TMR) can be fed to heifers after 2 months old and doing so is likely to result in better feed digestion and utilization.

Approximately four to six pounds of grain containing 16 percent crude protein, plus quality hay should be offered daily to heifers up to 6 months old.

Vaccination strategies
Respiratory and reproductive diseases are perhaps the greatest threats to heifer growth, development and breeding efficiency. Without protection against BVD, IBR, PI3, BRSV, lepto hardjo-bovis and clostridial diseases, heifers face long odds of ever meeting herd performance and reproduction goals.

These common diseases can result in a multitude of production and health challenges like reduced conception and pregnancy rates, embryonic death, infertility, rebreeding, extended days open and reduced weaning weights.

Heifers should be vaccinated with a safe, effective product that provides long-lasting protection against all major diseases. Broad-spectrum vaccines that provide effective coverage against these diseases are convenient for many producers.

Annual revaccination for reproductive, respiratory and clostridial diseases should be given prebreeding at 12 to 13 months old. At eight to 16 weeks before calving, heifers should be vaccinated for scours and Clostridium perfringens Type A toxoid, with boosters given at four weeks prior to calving.

Producers should work with their veterinarian to formalize a heifer vaccination protocol that is well-suited to their operation.

By taking a more proactive approach to managing heifers and consistently adhering to a few simple protocols, producers can ensure the availability of top-performing replacement heifers and will have peace of mind knowing their heifers are healthy and being prepared for a profitable role in their operation.

Visit to get more information on improving the health, development and productivity of heifers. PD

Doug Scholz
Veterinary Services
Novartis Animal Health