Heifer growing program

Dec 06, 2021

While feed costs for lactating cows represent the largest outlay for a dairy operation, producing heifers represents the second-largest expenditure.  Since the heifer is the future of the herd, managing growth and age at first calving is significant to the profitability of the operation.  Economic evidence suggests that heifers should calve between 22 & 24 months of age.  Heifers typically require at least 5% additional costs a month-1 when calving later than 24 months.  It is also well known that earlier calving heifers have increased milk yield compared to later herd mates as well as improved conception rate and fertility, and remain in herd longer.  Thus, to realize these great benefits, heifers must perform & reach proper stature & condition.
Researchers recommend two growth benchmarks – heifers should be 55-60% of mature body weight at breeding and 75-85% of mature body weight post-calving (90-95% at calving).  While determining mature body weight may seem challenging, evaluate body weight of third-calf cows to aid in determining the desired growth rate of the heifer program.  Below are some guidelines to achieve proper stature & bodyweight for heifers –
  • Beginning at birth – it is critical to provide passive immunity to the newborn in the form of high-quality colostrum (both immunoglobulin content & cleanliness).  Colostrum should be given ASAP (preferably within 3-31/2 hours after birth).    Colostrum should be fed at the rate of 15% of body weight (approximately 4 qts. for Holsteins) along with a second feeding of at least 2 qts. 12 hours after birth.  Remember, intestinal absorption of immunoglobulins from colostrum decreases rapidly (<50% absorption nine hours after birth).  If colostrum cannot be administered until 24 hours after birth, the calf will be unable to obtain effective passive immunity resulting in poor performance, probable higher rearing costs, and possibly death.
  • Calves are expected to at least double bodyweight before weaning.  To achieve this bodyweight by six weeks of age, calves should average no less than 2 lbs. day.-1
  • Stature (skeletal & muscle) should represent the majority of weight gain with little fat gain.
  • Critical portion of heifer program is early development of the digestive system to allow for transition from liquid to a solid diet. 
    • Introducing water & specially formulated calf starter by 3 - 5 days of life will initiate ruminal structure development critical for nutrient abruption.
    • Offering forage during the milk phase is counter-productive as rumen development is restricted.
  • Only high-quality milk replacer should be offered.  Pasteurized whole milk (or pasteurized waste milk) is equally effective if a milk balancer (supplement) is added.
  • For weaning to take place, the calf is required to be consuming at least 2.5-3.0 lbs. of starter day-1 for three consecutive days to maintain desired growth rate after the secession of milk feeding.
  • From 3 – 9 months of age, secretory tissue & overall mammary gland development will occur more rapidly than other organs.  If excess energy without proper protein is offered, superfluous fat will be deposited which will disrupt later milk production.
  • Evaluate heifers at one yr. of age to determine whether proper size can be achieved for breeding.  Typically, 850 lbs. for Holsteins is desired (approximately 650 lbs. for Jerseys).
  • Always offer a completely balanced ration to maintain the desired rate of gain until calving.  Remember, the older the animal will deposit more fat than protein making it fundamental to monitor rations.
The Co-op Feed & Animal Health specialists can assist with any implementation of heifer programs that will fit the producer’s operation.
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