Tips for managing first-calf heifers
With the 2009 calving season nearing, Robert Wells, Ph.D., a Livestock Consultant with The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, offers cattle producers a few tips for improving the life and production of replacement, first-calf heifers.
"With margins tightening, producers must make sure to maximize lifetime cow profit potential starting with the first calf," Wells said. "Taking care of the heifer's health needs is top priority."
Vaccinations serve as the first line of defense. Wells suggests vaccinating open heifers for respiratory diseases, blackleg, Vibriosis, Leptospirosis and Brucellosis. Internal and external parasites (flies, lice, ticks, worms and flutes) should also be treated.
Wells stressed that before introducing them into a replacement program, beef producers should test for persistently infected (PI) bovine viral diarrhea virus (BVDV).
The next step is to conduct proper breeding. This includes breeding a heifer to a bull with high-quality genetics and low calving birth weight.
Wells recommended that heifers be bred to calve at least 30 days prior to the main herd. This allows the heifer extra time to start cycling and to be rebred at the beginning of the next breeding season. Additionally, she should have older, heavier calves at weaning every year from then on.
Heifer diet plays another key role in the process. At calving and breeding times, the heifer should be in a body condition score (BCS) of 5.5 to 6. Correct feeding will help her reach and maintain the right BCS. A heifer that is in proper condition will provide the best opportunity to rebreed for her second calf.
"Keeping the heifers on your best pastures and feeding them adequately with high-quality hay or supplemental feed will ensure that they will gain the proper amount," Wells said. "A heifer should be gaining at a rate of 1.5 to 1.75 pounds per day."
Wells said that a common misconception is that producers can reduce calf size and calving difficulty by restricting a heifer's nutrition; however, genetics predominantly dictate calving difficulty.
Wells offered one final tip: Keep the heifers separated from the mature herd.
"Bred heifers require a little more attention than the mature cows," Wells said. "It is much easier to provide proper care if they are not commingled with the mature cow herd."
If possible, Wells suggested, continue supplementing feed and keep the heifers separated from the herd until after peak lactation (90-100 days post-calving).
"For many producers, having heifers on their operation is frustrating at best," Wells said. "But with a few simple considerations, developing first-calf heifers can be financially rewarding over the productive lifetime of the cow in the herd. If you take care of her, she'll take care of you."
For related articles, link to The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation.