10 tips for keeping first-calf heifers in tip-top shape

March 16, 2015

3 Min Read
10 tips for keeping first-calf heifers in tip-top shape

Calving season is underway for many ranchers. In our operation, we've finished calving out the first-calf heifers and have moved on to our mature cows. For first-calf heifers, calving and lactation occur at a time when they are still growing themselves. These are major stressors that, if ignored, can lead to a lowered body condition score (BCS), delayed rebreeding or a smaller calf.

READ: What’s the value of a bred beef heifer in 2015? 

“While calving can often be a major stressor on your heifers, more subtle stress may take its toll on them,” Aerica Bjurstrom, University of Wisconsin Extension ag specialist, writes in a recent Ohio State University Beef Newsletter. “Two-year-old heifers calve at approximately 85% of their mature weight. Her entire first lactation requires her to continue growing, go through the stress of calving, produce milk, and raise a calf, all while being at the bottom of the pecking order among cows in the herd. Monitoring BCS in first-calf heifers is critical to success. Ideally, you would like to keep your heifers at a BCS of 5-6. Animals with excess body condition (greater than 7) have lower reproductive performance.”


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Bjurstrom offers 10 strategies to help first-calf heifers wean a bigger calf, breed back sooner, and improve longevity. These include:

1. Graze first-calf heifers and mature cows separately. Graze first-calf heifers either with three-year olds or virgin replacement heifers.

2. Always give heifers the best-quality pasture available.

READ: Breed-back on first-calf heifers starts with nutrition 

3. Supplement first-calf heifers with grains (energy) like corn, corn silage, or barley before they lose body condition.

“Thin heifers don't breed back quickly, if at all,” says Bjurstrom. “If she rebreeds late, it will take several lactations to get her back on track with the rest of the herd. The plane of nutrition during the last 50 to 60 days before calving has a significant effect on calving interval. In addition, feeding a balanced diet during late gestation will decrease calving difficulty.”

4. Wean calves off heifers at 5-6 months of age.

READ: 5 traits you want in a beef breeding heifer

5. If heifers are thin at calving, calves may need to be weaned extra early.

6. Keep a high-quality, complete mineral available for first-calf heifers.

7. Use strategic deworming programs for young cows.

8. Control external parasites.

9. Calve heifers 3-4 weeks before the cows calve.

Bjurstrom says, “This practice can be implemented for the 2016 breeding season. The special time devoted to only heifers will allow you to focus on potential calving issues and recruit extra help, if needed. If you choose to manage heifers separately, it is important to remember that calving early means pasture will likely not be available when needed, so additional nutrients will need to be supplemented.”

10. Keep a close eye on body condition score.

With a little extra TLC, your bred heifers will make it past the first calving season and better weather the major stressors that come with birthing their first calf and rebreeding on a timely basis. Keep these considerations in mind so bred heifers stay in the herd for years to come.

Do you offer extra care to your first-calf heifers? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of Beefmagazine.com or the Penton Farm Progress Group.


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