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Take Care of Your Heifers and They Will Take Care of You

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About the end of every year, beef producers have sold the last calf crop and have a few weeks or months of relative calm before calving season starts. It is easy to become complacent about the cow herd and the replacement heifers, but if you don’t take care of them now, they will not be able to take care of you in the future.

The period from calving to rebreeding is especially important for the first-calf heifer. During this time, you are expecting her to maintain body condition, lactate, continue to grow and finally restart her estrous cycle again. At the same time, she is losing her 2-year-old teeth, which makes it harder for her to take in adequate nutrition.

Here are a few tips to ensure that replacement heifers enjoy a long and productive life:

Take care of her health needs

Vaccinate and booster open heifers with high quality modified live viral respiratory, blackleg, Vibriosis, Leptospirosis and Brucellosis vaccines. Make sure that they have been treated for internal and external parasites (such as flies, lice, ticks, worms and flukes). Test them for PI-BVDV prior to introducing them into your replacement program.

Breed her right

This includes breeding the heifer to a known calving-ease bull of high quality genetics. We typically do not recommend breeding heifers to unproven Continental breed bulls or to Longhorn or Corriente bulls. Unproven Continental bulls can create the obvious problem of dystocia. Conversely, Longhorn- and Corriente-sired calves may be born easily, but they have a much reduced value at marketing time. With margins tightening, producers must make sure to maximize lifetime cow profit potential starting with the first calf. Breed the heifer to calve at least 30 days prior to the main herd. This allows her time to start cycling and to be bred at the beginning of the breeding season, thus, she will have an older, heavier calf at weaning every year thereafter.

Feed her correctly

Feed the heifer so that she is in a body condition score (BCS) of 5.5 – 6 at calving and breeding time. Heifers that are in adequate condition will have the best opportunity to breed and then rebreed for their second calf. Keep your heifers on your best pastures and feed them adequately with high quality hay or supplemental feed. Visit with your livestock consultant or a qualified nutritionist for specific recommendations for your situation.

Make sure she gains weight

From weaning to calving, a heifer should be gaining at a rate of 1.5 to 1.75 lbs/day. At breeding time, heifers should weigh at least 65-70 percent of their mature body weight. At calving time, they need to weigh at least 85 percent of their mature body weight. A common misconception is that you can reduce calf size and calving difficulty by restricting a heifer’s nutrition. Adequate nutrition to the heifer will not cause a fetus to become too large – genetics predominantly dictate this. In order for a heifer to experience dystocia, she would have to be in a BCS of 8 or more. A heifer that is too thin and runs out of energy during the calving process is at a much higher risk of dystocia than one that is at a BCS of 6.

Keep heifers separated from the mature herd

Bred heifers require a little more attention than the mature cows. It is much easier to provide adequate care if they are not co-mingled with the mature cow herd. Additionally, this will help you to watch them during calving time and provide additional supplemental feed when necessary. If possible, continue supplementing feed and keep the heifers separated from the main herd until after peak lactation (90-100 days post-calving).

For many producers, having heifers on their operation is frustrating at best. But with a few simple considerations, developing or purchasing first-calf heifers can be financially rewarding over the productive lifetime of the cow in your herd. If you take care of her, she’ll take care of you!

Robert Wells

Robert Wells, Ph.D. former Noble Research Institute senior regenerative ranching advisor

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