Calving heifers earlier is worth the extra effort to reduce costs and maximise returns. Aly Balsom reports



Calving beef heifers at 24 months is an absolute must for all producers, says independent beef and sheep consultant David Hendy.

“It makes practical and economic sense to calve at this age – the quicker you can get production from your heifers the better.

“There is no physical, economic or genetic reason why any breed cannot calve at 24 months.”

And calving at this age makes financial sense. “Based on every 100 calves weaned and with a replacement rate of 20%, calving at 24 months rather than 36 months equates to a decrease in annual cattle numbers of 12%,” explains Mr Hendy.

Consequently, calving earlier will also see a decrease in feed costs of about 10%, and a 15% decrease in land requirement.

“In financial terms this equates to a decrease in costs of about £55 a head for every 100 calves weaned.”

However, there will be additional management and logistical costs for calving heifers at two years. “But, following a specific management programme up to second calving at three years of age will reduce these inputs to no more than normal daily costs,” he says.

“Any animal, whether a breeder of finisher, should grow at a good rate within the first 15 months of life and achieve 380-420kg at 15-16 months, depending on breed.”

However, to calve heifers at 24 months, it is essential they reach this target of 65% of their adult body weight at 15-16 months of age and 80-85% of their adult weight at 24 months.

“And specific management from an early age is crucial to achieve target weights,” stresses Mr Hendy.

“Weighing stock every three months is a good way of checking stock is on track. This way contingency can be made for animals to catch up.

“Achieving these growth rates is not difficult. When animals can not achieve these weights, they are undesirable for breeding stock – an underweight heifer will always be underweight and will struggle with calf at foot.”

Although good frame growth throughout the nine month period between service and calving is essential, the critical period comes after calving. “This is often the stage that is forgotten – heifers get dumped out with the herd and are expected to cope.

“Management during this first year with calf at foot is key. Heifers will still be growing, she must also produce milk and get back in calf as soon as possible.”

Ideally first calvers should be run as a separate group and fed on a rising plain of nutrition for the first 3-4 months on a diet containing 135-140MJ of energy a day.

“And with heifers potentially taking 80-90 days to get back in heat, ideally they should calve 2-3 weeks earlier than the main herd so they have maximum opportunity to get back in calf.”

Calves should also be weaned off heifers earlier at about 7-8 months of age. “Because the heifer will still be growing it will give her the chance to recover. This will also allow you to work on getting the calf up to weight.”

CASE STUDY – Tom Fromant
Clarkes Lodge Farm, Kislingbury, Northamptonshire

Beef farmer, Tom Fromant, decided to calve a proportion of his spring calving, 200-cow suckler herd at 24 months as a trial run.

“The main reasons we are calving at this age, rather than 36 months, is to reduce costs and maximise returns. By calving early, you can potentially get an extra calf out of a cow and start getting value from a heifer after 12 months.”

This year the farm will calve 20 of their South Devon cross heifers at this age. “The key is to feed these heifers well and increase intakes post calving so they are able to maintain growth and support the calf.

“South Devons are not known for being a fast maturing breed, but with the right management you can get any breed on target to calve at 24 months,” he says.

“In the past, we tried to calve heifers at 24 months, but were unsuccessful because we did not feed them properly. Now we are more focused.” Heifers are now fed a complete diet mix, allowing energy to be changed relatively easily when necessary.

“We will see how we get on this year and move to calving all heifers at this age if it works well.”