Feeding replacement dairy heifers up to first calving

Heifers must come into production as soon as possible, but care must be taken to prevent them from getting fat.

Feeding replacement dairy heifers up to first calving
Heifers should not calve younger than 22 months.
Photo: FW Archive
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The faster an animal grows, the more efficiently it is converting food into body mass, since a smaller proportion of the food goes to maintenance and a larger proportion to growth.

Heifers must therefore grow to maturity and reach covering weight as quickly as possible, but within a given age constraint. Covering before the appropriate age will result in low production and increased calving problems. Heifers should not calve when younger than 22 months, but should calve before 27 months.

Moreover, the size and condition of heifers at first calving will have a marked effect on their production during the first three lactations. The heavier a heifer is at first calving, the higher her milk production will be during the first three lactations. The reason that some heifers are less productive is that fatty tissue is deposited in the udder.

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Feeding tips
The nutritional needs of heifers change as they grow older, so their feeding programme must be adapted according to the following age groups:

Three to six months: During this phase, heifers of similar age groups can be placed together in sheds or small pens. The age difference within any group should not be greater than two months. The rumen is not yet fully developed, and the heifers should be given only the best quality coarse fodder in the form of grazing and/or legume hay.

Six to 12 months: The rumen is now fully developed and the calf can utilise coarse fodder effectively. Give it good quality coarse fodder in the form of grazing, silage and/or hay. At this stage, coarse fodder of a poor quality and a low or deficient feed intake are the main causes of poor growth and malnutrition.

12 months to calving: Depending on the kind, quantity and quality of the available coarse fodder, either of the following feeding programmes may be followed during this stage:

  • Programme 1 (very high quality hay). Supply high quality legume hay (lucerne) or young planted grazing, plus 1kg maize meal (or small grains) per day up to the covering stage. Concentrates are discontinued until three months before calving, after which the heifer must once more receive 1kg of dairy meal per day.
  • Programme 2 (medium quality hay). Supply hay of an average quality plus 2kg of coarse protein concentrate per day up to the covering stage.

After impregnation: Feed 1kg grain meal per day plus rough fodder.

From three months before calving: Feed 2kg dairy meal per day plus rough fodder.

Since the nutritional requirements of the heifer increase appreciably due to the growth of the foetus and the placenta, the extra concentrates during the last three months before calving are important.

If the heifers are inclined to grow too fat, reduce the supply of concentrates.

Management tips
Expensive housing is not necessary, but any crowding together in wet and dirty pens must be prevented – and protection must be provided against extreme temperatures.

Calves and heifers must be weighed or measured every month to determine their growth. Note the weight of each calf on a chart so that feeding programmes can be adjusted before the growth of the animal is affected permanently.

In addition:

  • Keep the heifers tame and calm. Move about among them regularly so they become used to you.
  • Dehorn the heifers with a branding iron before the age of one month, and remove any extra teats.
  • Follow a disease control programme drawn up with the help of a vet or animal health technician.
  • Vaccinate the heifer against contagious abortion at five months. It is compulsory by law, and is also essential. After this age, it is no longer possible to immunise a cow against the disease.

Source: Infopak by CJC Muller, Elsenburg.