Raising dairy heifers to their highest potential

Written by Dr. Jim White on .

Producers who are successful in raising heifers follow similar management practices. They feed high-quality feedstuffs and don’t feed too much forage too soon. They feed to maximize animal productivity. They have good records on animal performance and health.

One of the most important factors is avoiding the post-weaning lag. Some producers observe diminishing animal performance when calves are moved from hutches to group pens. Calves that are eating 2 pounds of starter feed a day often will fall behind when moved to the group housing, but those eating 6 pounds do not. Waiting for a couple of weeks to introduce hay to group-housed calves is usually helpful. The rumen won’t be fully developed until the calves are 400-450 pounds, so they will be 4-6 months old before the rumen is large enough and developed enough to handle a diet high in forage. Forage quality and availability need to be adequate. Clean, fresh water needs to always be available.

Group size can be a factor. Smaller groups mean fewer friends to deal with and usually cause less stress. Providing adequate shelter also helps. Protecting calves from weather extremes reduces their feed needs and improves performance. Calves will lay down in a dry, draft-free, well-bedded area, if available. Ambient temperature, moisture, hair coat and wind directly influence the calves’ nutrient needs. This is a winter time concern as well as a summer concern.

From the time heifer calves are weaned until they reach about 450 pounds is not the time to skimp on feed quality. They can gain 2.5 pounds a day and have been shown to have better lactation performance when provided adequate amounts of quality rations. The principle of “that which is cheapest wins” is always a temptation, but reducing ration costs doesn’t need to come at the cost of animal performance. For example, if I feed too much forage to small calves, their average daily gain (ADG) drops. When I divide the daily feed cost by a smaller amount of gain, I often see an increase in cost of gain. That will get a nutritionist fired.

Pre-weaning starter feeds, such as MFA StandOut, and grower feeds, such as MFA Trendsetter, will have:

  • Palatable and digestible sources of protein, proving adequate metabolizable protein
  • Adequate energy
  • Vitamins and minerals
  • Refined functional carbohydrates
  • Appropriate feed additives, e.g. Rumensin, Shield Technology

Adequate heifer growth means heifers achieve height and weight goals. They should be ready for breeding at the targeted time. Moving heifers to the breeding group should be based on weight and hip height, rather than age. The current recommendation is to breed heifers at about 55 percent of the dam’s mature bodyweight.

Holsteins should be 51 to 52 inches at the hip and 750 pounds before being put in the breeding group. Jerseys are smaller and should be 40 inches at the hip and 600 pounds. Even though we see some heifers—one out of every five or six—start to cycle at 9 months of age, it is recommended to not breed heifers younger than 10 months.

The ADG objective of a bred heifer is about 1.75 pounds per day. If we feed high-energy diets—particularly if the diet is high energy and low in protein, such as high-yield corn silage or a feedlot type diet—the heifers will get fat. This is particularly detrimental. With these types of feedstuffs, heifers may need their feed restricted. Feeding about 85 percent of free-choice intake achieves the performance goals but does not over-condition them. For bred heifers on a grass forage base, I tend to see 66 to 85 percent of the diet as forage.

Holstein heifers should be eating about 22 pounds of dry matter a day when they are ready to calve; Jersey heifers will be eating about 17 pounds. The preference is to have heifers on the close-up diet the last month of pregnancy. The close-up diet should be more concentrated than the grower diet. At the end of pregnancy, the fetal tissue and mammary gland are soaking up a lot of nutrients. The heifer has continued nutrient needs for growth and maintenance. Her dry matter intake declines as calving approaches. If she can’t eat enough to meet the energy and protein need, she will start to mobilize muscle and fat. This is not good. Excessive weight loss predisposes the animal to fatty liver. Ensure the diet is adequate.

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