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Heifer management

Course: Cow management | Last Updates: 7th October 2015

Claire Wathes
Professor veterinary reproduction
Royal Veterinary College
Biography >>

This equates to an extra £2,000 an animal over five years based on extra milk revenue alone, compared to animals calving over 30 months. However, the average age at first calving for Holstein Friesian cows in the UK is 28 months (NMR) while less than half of live born heifers actually reach a third calving (RVC 2013.)

This module is designed to help you improve your herd’s efficiency by achieving growth rates which will ensure heifers are big enough to be served for the first time at 13 to 14 months, at 55% to 60% of their mature bodyweight.

Good early growth is fundamental. Calves can convert feed into growth most efficiently during the milk feeding period. Therefore to achieve target calving age and weight in a cost effective manner, growth must be maximised during the first few months of life, starting with colostrum.

Table one: Growth targets
Age (months) Target growth rate (kg/day)
0.4 Up to 0.9
4-12 0.7
12-16 0.8-0.9
16-24 0.7-0.75
Source: Volac

Colostrum management

Colostrum helps protect the young calf against disease, and is also important for calf growth and development.

Remember, a much higher volume of poor quality colostrum will have to be fed to offer the same level of disease protection as a smaller quantity of good quality colostrum. Poor colostrum will have little effect of boosting calf health and development.

Tips for ensuring quality:

  • Collect  colostrum from the first milking and as soon as possible following the delivery of the calf (within six hours post calving).
  • Test colostrum quality with a colostrometer – quality cannot be determined by eye
  • Keep good quality colostrum in the freezer to ensure a supply at all times – freeze within two  hours after collection to reduce bacterial growth.

Tips for feeding:

  • Feed colostrum with a teated bottle or a stomach tube to ensure calves  receive the correct quantity and quality.
  • Feed colostrum as soon as possible after birth and always within three hours.
  • Feed as much as possible – a minimum three  litres within the first three hours, and a further three litres within 12 hours.

If in doubt about the effectiveness of your colostrum management, ask your vet to run some blood tests to monitor your calves’ immune status.

Milk feeding

How much to feed: Calves must be fed sufficient energy and protein to support the target growth rate. This depends on the total amount of milk solids fed per calf per day, as opposed to the volume of liquid milk.

A 10% solution of milk fed at 10% of the calf’s bodyweight (approximately 500g milk solids per day) will produce healthy calves, but it will restrict growth rates at the time of the highest potential feed conversion rate.

To achieve growth rates of at least 0.7kg per day pre-weaning, feed 700g to 900g of milk solids per calf per day in two or preferably more feedings.

Table 2: Examples of different mixing and feeding options to provide the calf with the desired amount of milk solids per day
  Whole milk Milk replacer mixed at 100g per litre (10%) Milk replacer
mixed at 125g per litre (12.5%)
Milk replacer mixed at 150g (15%)
Milk solids per litre (gms) 125 100 125 150
Milk volume (litres/day) 5 5 6 6
Total milk solids per day (gms) 625 500 750 900
Source: Volac

As long as good quality milk is fed under hygienic conditions, providing up to 900g solids per day will not increase the risk of scours, an issue which is often more dependent upon hygiene and calf stress.

Good quality calf milk replacer is acidified and is typically more consistent than surplus whole milk. Depending on the feeding level and growth rate required, feed a milk replacer containing 20% to 26% protein and 16% to 20% oil.

If feeding calves a higher amount of milk solids for increased growth, then milk replacers with a higher protein content (26%) and limited fat content (16%) will help promote lean tissue growth and limit body fat.

Offer clean fresh water from day three: Water is required for rumen development – water contained in milk is not enough because milk bypasses the rumen in healthy calves. For each one kg of concentrate consumed, a calf drinks four to five litres of water.

Offer good-quality calf starter: essential to promote early rumen development and to speed up the transition from a monogastric animal to a ruminant. Quality feed is key, typically containing 12MJ energy, 18%-20% crude protein and at least 25% starch and sugar with the necessary vitamins and minerals, and enough fibre to avoid digestive upsets.

From three to five days, offer a handful of fresh calf starter daily and remove leftovers. From two to three weeks intakes will begin to increase and by six to eight weeks, calves should be consuming 0.7 to 1kg of calf starter per day.


Aim to double birth weight by weaning at around 56 days (40kg at birth to 80kg at weaning).

Calves must be consuming adequate amounts of starter at weaning (at least one kg/day) to replace the energy previously supplied by the milk. If weaning abruptly, the calf will need to consume an additional one kg/day of starter to replace each 500g of milk replacer previously fed.

Minimise changes such as dehorning, social group, and housing around weaning, and for approximately one week afterwards. Do not wean calves if they are stressed or diseased.

Monitor heifers

Set growth targets for your farm based on the mature bodyweight of cows in the herd, and monitor heifers during rearing to ensure animals are meeting the required target. If they are not, then nutritional changes can be made.

When: measure animals on at least two occasions during the rearing period – at birth, and again when heifers are handled, for example for vaccination, worming or insemination.

How: weigh scales offer the most accurate measure and, if set up correctly in a race or crush, will be the easiest method to use. Alternatively, use a weigh band (girth tape) or height stick. Using the same measure consistently allows you to benchmark your results.

Table 3: Target bodyweights for Holstein Friesian heifers (assuming 660kg and first calving at 24 months)
Age (months) Target weight (kg) Key considerations
Birth 36-40 Ensure adequate, early intake of good-quality colostrum
1 55-60 Feed good-quality milk or milk replacer
Good hygiene for feeding and housing
3 95-110 Minimise stress at weaning
6 180-200 Weigh and monitor growth
13-14 350-400 Heifers must be well grown or they will not conceive
Need good AI facilities and insemination technique or ensure good bull fertility
25-25 550-600* Aim for BCS of 2.5-3.0 at calving
Ensure adequate supervision of first calving heifers
*90% mature bodyweight before first calving, 85% after calving
Source: Wathes et al, 2009
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