Cross-bred beef cattle on grass©Tim Scrivener

Heifers are the lifeblood of the suckler herd and managing them correctly will maximise herd productivity. Debby Brown of Castle Vets, Barnard Castle, County Durham, advises farmers to begin preparation now so heifers are in top condition for spring service.

See also: Free EBV workshops for beef farmers

  • Bought-in heifers should join the herd at least four weeks before service to allow time for testing and vaccination – any changes including diet, social group or environment may cause stress and impact on fertility.
  • Know the source. Dairy-cross heifers may have improved milk production but can be crossed with beef breeds if they’ve had issues – for example, fertility. Take care not to bring problems into the beef herd.
  • Home-bred heifers are not completely risk free – know the BVD, lepto, and IBR status of your herd and test well in advance of service so problem heifers can be removed before affecting herd fertility.
  • Home-bred heifer selection should be based on growth rate to weaning. Those born early in the calving period are usually the best replacements – well grown and coming from fertile mothers. These calves will be more likely to calve at 24 months.
  • Compare heifer and mature cow bodyweights – heifers should be 65% of mature bodyweight at spring service.
  • Monitor body condition score. Heifers can easily lay down fat too soon, affecting the liver, energy metabolism and fertility. Keep protein levels up to ensure leaner heifers and increase feeding levels in the run-up to first service for a flushing effect.
  • Whether using AI or a bull, both need forward planning. AI may involve synchronisation – speak to your vet. A bull must be on farm for three months before use to allow acclimatisation, health and fertility testing. Good EBVs for calving ease should guide the choice of semen or bull.
  • Health-check all breeding cattle now. Any issues should be treated and the animal allowed to recover before service for the best chance of conception and minimal stress at service.
  • Optimise diets for continuous lean growth and aim for BCS 2.5-3 at calving. Use quality forage and good sources of protein and energy. Consider vitamin and mineral supplements of manganese, selenium and iodine six weeks before service.