Heifer and Young Cow Management

July, 2014
Christa L. Kirby, Extension Agent II, Livestock Manatee County

Many producers are faced with making several tough decisions on a daily basis. Regardless of managing a herd that is large or small, one of the decisions that must be made is whether to purchase or raise your replacement heifers. One of the biggest things to take into consideration for this question is whether you have the resources such as land, labor and finances to support raising your own replacements. If you are planning to raise your own replacements you would want to make sure you have accurate records for individual cow/calf pairs. The information in the records will be very useful down the road when management decisions need to be made. Another consideration would be whether you are willing to have a low birth weight bull to breed to the young heifers.

If you decide to raise your own replacements you will need to evaluate your operation. Are you able to grow this animal so that they are at a minimum of 65% of their mature weight at puberty? On average most cows would be between 650 – 750 pounds at puberty or 14-15 months of age. This will produce offspring at an average age of 2 years. Puberty is a function of the animals’ genotype, age and weight. Considerations should also be made for the breed of animal, recognizing that larger breeds will mature later than smaller breeds. If you are not able to grow your replacements within that time frame or have an undefined breeding season you may consider waiting and breed your animals to calve at 3 years of age.

When selecting replacement heifers for your herd, you want to select more than will be needed. Over time you will need to cull some of those out of the herd for one reason or another. If you don’t allow for extras you are limited on your final selection. When possible, take the time to review the records of the heifers. You want to find heifers with reproductive efficiency, have a high degree of fertility, are structurally sound and have a frame size between a 5 and 6. Some possible problem areas that you may encounter would be unexpected low pregnancy rates from yearling heifers, higher calf losses at calving and low percentage of rebreeding for the second calf.

When raising your own replacements you should evaluate them on a regular basis to ensure they are meeting your criteria. At weaning you will want to keep replacements with heavy weaning weights. This will allow them to reach the desired weight at puberty with fewer inputs. Evaluating heifers as a yearling will allow you to ensure that they have reached the desired weight for breeding and have also reached puberty. After the breeding season, evaluation is important to ensure the heifers are still growing to reach 80-85% of their mature weight at calving while also maintaining their pregnancy. After they have weaned their first calf you will be able to evaluate the quality and size of calf the heifer was able to produce. This is also a sign as to the milking abilities of the heifer. Lower weaning weights can be an indicator of low producing mothers.

If you decide to calve your heifers at 2 years of age you should maintain a cow herd that has a mature weight that is suitable for the resources and environment that are available to them. Preconditioning heifers after weaning will ensure weight gain rather than weight loss. This will also assist in reaching the target weight of 650-750 pounds at puberty which can be difficult without supplementation. Synchronizing heifers can assist in the breeding process. This will allow a tighter calving interval allowing you to know when to watch for heifers having difficulty. Artificial insemination may be a consideration for first calving heifers if you have a smaller herd. This will allow you to make more decisions based on the bull you chose for your animals. A typical breeding season for heifers is 60-75 days and begins 20-30 days prior to the mature cow breeding. Pregnancy diagnosis should be followed up 60 days after the breeding season allowing for the culling of open heifers and cows.

When managing the young cow you want to keep the animals separate from the mature cow herd. These animals are still growing and need more management than the mature cow herd. You will also be able to monitor the herd more closely and recognize problems earlier if they are kept separate from the mature cow herd. The critical nutritional period for first calf heifers is 80 days after calving. This is when the animal can become nutritionally deficient while producing milk for her calf and also trying to continue to grow and support her own body functions. For this reason, first and second calf heifers should calve in at a body condition score of 5 to 7. Supplementation should be provided so they lose only one body condition score.

These young animals are the future of your operation. If you are able to select the animals that fit your operation and manage them well they will be in your herd for years to come.

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