Replacement Heifers: the Key to Future Profits


Replacement Heifers: the Key to Future Profits

Andrew P. Johnson

Total Herd Management Services,
824 Woodside Drive,
Seymour, WI, USA, 54165.
E-mail to Dr. Andrew Johnson at

Take Home Messages

Heifers are your future dairy herd and to reach their potential they must be properly managed.
The sooner the heifers reach the milking herd, the sooner they can make a profit on your dairy.
Nutrition and environment are the two areas that impact heifer performance the most.
Optimizing heifer growth will help your farm compete today and in the future with all other dairies.
Heifer management is an essential part of any farm.


When looking at the history of the dairy industry everyone has concentrated on nutrition, reproduction, production, and the health of the dairy cow. It is long overdue to go beyond these areas and focus on the complete dairy operation. One area which has a significant impact on the dairy operation's future and overall profitability is heifer management. After all, heifers are the future dairy herd and cannot be ignored.

Heifers are one of the most neglected parts of any dairy operation. Everyone is so busy watching the milk cows that they never take the time to monitor the performance of the heifers. I have found that significant positive economic changes can be made on a dairy farm by implementing a heifer management program. In the vast majority of dairy operations, heifers are the biggest economic loss on that farm, yet no one even realizes it. Heifer raising is approximately 20% of the farms total operating costs. It is not inexpensive to raise heifers.

Getting involved in heifer management is simple. Make heifer management a priority and then find the time and do it. Farmers must get interested in improving the future of their herd, especially if they want to stay competitive in the world dairy market. They need to make the commitment to start a heifer management program.

The best way to implement this program is to get the farmer and their veterinarian involved in production medicine programs. Both need to understand the importance of a good heifer raising program. For years the dairy industry has focused on scheduled reproductive programs, now is the time to implement heifer management programs. If you do, return on each dollar spent will be higher.

A simple record system for heifer management is needed if dairy farmers are to monitor heifer performance. My heifer record chart seems to work well on all farms regardless of size (Table 1). Farmers have found this simple sheet provides all the basic information they need. The better the records, the more successful the program. If the farmers will not take the time to keep good heifer records, the program will fail from time to time because animals are missed or fall through the cracks.

Heifer Management

For years, the dairy industry has accepted that well managed heifers should calve around 24 months of age. Somehow this has become a standard to strive for. It wasn't that many years ago when everyone thought a somatic cell count of 250,000 was excellent. Today, however, having a herd somatic cell count under 100,000 is very typical. The better dairy farmers kept fine tuning and found that new goals were achievable. In heifer raising, the same good managers found out that they could easily get heifers to proper size, yet have them calve at 20 to 22 months of age with better results. Most of my well managed farms are getting heifers to calve weighing 570 kg (1250 pounds) and measure 137 to 140 cm (54 to 55 inches) tall at 20 to 22 months of age.

I recommend that dairy farmers breed heifers based on size and forget age. As long as the heifer is 11 to 12 months old and is 127 cm (50 inches tall), breed her when she shows a heat. I next recommend to breed all heifers at 14 to 15 months of age regardless of size. In this program, the worst heifers will calve at 24 to 25 months of age while the best heifers will calve between 20 and 22 months of age.

The key to younger calving ages is to make sure the animals are the proper size. If heifers calve at 20 months of age and they only weigh 340 kg (750 pounds), you are in real trouble. The economics to early calving age is impressive. Most research estimates that it costs around $60 a month to raise a heifer, however these estimates are probably on the low side. If a 100 cow herd which calves 40 heifers a year can reduce calving age from 24 months to 21 months there will be a savings of $7200 in heifer raising costs. This same herd will also see a one time increase in cash of $12,000. By reducing heifer calving age by 3 months, the number of heifers required is reduced from 40 to 30. The farm can sell 10 heifers at $1200 and generate $12,000 the first year of the program. Another benefit that should be added to the total is less crowded heifer raising facilities. Calving younger and proper sized heifers has a huge impact on any dairy farms profitability.

Management Programs

I approach heifer management in several ways. The approach that has worked best is the "Heifer Hustle" program. This program will quickly point out the weaknesses and/or strengths of their current heifer management program. This program simply shows the dairy farmer if they are getting maximum performance out of their heifer raising program or failing to optimize heifer growth.

The easiest way to demonstrate the need to implement a heifer management program is to graph one or two calves from each group and measure them. I always let the dairy farmer pick the heifers because I know they are going to pick the better heifers and when these don't measure up, the dairy farmer quickly realizes the rest are even worse. In most cases, it doesn't take long for the farmer to decide to implement a heifer management program. Once the heifers are graphed you have the data to design the right management program for their farm. There are many graphs available for all dairy breeds (Figure 1; Table 2).

Height and Weight. The best way to monitor heifer growth is to measure both the weight and height of the heifers. Some people only monitor the weight of the heifers, but I found that one usually misses 75% of the real heifer raising picture. Most herds will meet the weight line without much effort, however, the vast majority of these heifers are below the normal height line. Based on my years of experience, I feel height is more important than weight. If the dairy farmer gets a good frame on his heifers, they will be bigger, milk better, and last longer in the their herds. A proper sized heifer is definitely more profitable to the dairy operation.

Height can be measured several ways. You can make a height stick with yard sticks and a level, you can order a height stick from Nasco ($75), or you can paint "height" lines on the mangers, gates, or posts to estimate heights. No matter which method you choose, be consistent. You are always better off with rough data than no data at all. In over 80% of the farms heifers are found to be below normal growth patterns.

Weight can be measured several ways as well. You can use the cloth weight tape, use a portable scale, or use an 8 foot metal measuring tape and a conversion chart (Table 2). The cloth tapes tend to stretch over time and give you invalid information. The scale is the most accurate method, however, it is also an expensive approach. The metal tape measure tends to be the most economical and reliable way to get the job done. The key is to be consistent in your approach. Always measure the heifers in the same area each time.

I like to see farmers use a work sheet each time they graph heifers so the data is complied and then easy to use. The heifer hustle worksheet (Table 3) has worked the best and it becomes a good record of each measurement. I feel that the heifers should be graphed one or two times a year or worked into the normal routine so heifers are graphed each time they are handled. Good times to measure heifers are at weaning, when being moved from pen to pen, at first breeding, and at calving.

You don't need to make extra work for yourself, but you do need to work graphing into your normal routines. Heifers that are most responsive to the change in your management and feeding are those less than one year of age. This is the group of heifers where you can see the positive changes quickly and then measure their impact on the dairy herd.

The good thing about the heifer hustle program is it allows the dairy farmer a way to monitor any change made. The negative side to this program is that it can also show that not all recommendations work. As with any other management program on a dairy farm, you need to be able to measure the success or failure to really know if the program works.

Nutrition. Another important area with heifer management programs is nutrition. There are very few commercial or private nutrition companies that spend much time with heifer and calf rations. Heifer nutrition probably is the most important nutrition program on a dairy farm because it affects the future dairy herd. If heifers achieve recommended growth rates they will indeed milk better and you can show this difference. It is easy to monitor heifer performance by looking at peak milk yield and age at first calving.

Heifer nutrition has not received a great deal of attention by anyone that works with the dairy farmer. Nutrition has a direct effect on a heifers growth and future production. Heifer nutrition cannot be overlooked if heifers are to reach their full genetic potential and maximize their profitability.

Most heifer rations tend to promote short and fat heifers. In my opinion, current NRC requirements are marginal and tend to promote a short, fat heifer. If heifers grow this way, they will not produce up to their full genetic potential. Research world wide shows that heifer's that get too fat prior to puberty will produce less milk. The fat cells will permanently replace future milk producing cells. This process is not reversible as the animal grows older. Energy tends to make animals put on weight, while protein tends to promote height. Most rations are high in energy and low in protein which is the worst combination possible. Rations should be balanced with the proper amount of energy and protein so the heifer grows properly.

Most calf starter rations should be 18 to 21% CP and fed for the first 180 kg of body weight. Heifer growing rations should be 16 to 18% CP and fed through breeding. Once bred, the heifer rations should be 15% CP. The correct energy, mineral, and vitamin levels can be found by consulting NRC's Nutrient Requirements of Dairy Cattle. Protein is frequently the key limiting nutrient. By-pass protein must be carefully evaluated in heifer rations.

In research done in Canada and the USA, studies have shown that heifer calves should not be fed dry hay until the fourth week of age. The studies show that heifers given dry hay after four weeks of age will indeed grow faster. When dry hay is offered after four weeks of age, the hay should be the best quality on the farm, not "heifer hay".

Animal Health

One of the most significant ingredients I have included in the heifer nutrition program is coccidia prevention. This program has made significant changes in the health and growth patterns of heifers. Farmers can see the positive results after 10 days of feeding the Deccox and quickly appreciate the benefits of eliminating the stress of coccidiosis. This has been one of the most significant components of our heifer management programs. Every dairy farm should be preventing coccidia every single day of the year. Coccidiosis is a very significant problem.

Disease definitely can have a direct effect on heifer performance. The two most common diseases to affect heifers is respiratory disease and scours. Respiratory disease can be controlled through good environment and a scheduled vaccination program. Scours can also be controlled via good colostrum feeding and a clean environment. In the USA, there are many good vaccines available to prevent scours in dairy calves. Management seems to play the biggest role in all disease prevention programs. Research has shown that animals that have been affected by respiratory disease will never catch up to herd mates. Most studies show that sick heifers fall 3 to 6 months behind healthy calves of the same age. In fact, sick calves are 2.5 times more likely to die at a later date than healthy calves. Diseases do have a permanent negative effect on heifer growth and the only way to handle a disease properly is to prevent it.

I like to keep heifer nutrition easy so it gets done. Dairy farms have so many things to worry about that if one keeps heifer nutrition easy, the results are always better. Here is a simple heifer nutrition program I use on many farms.

Weaned Calves: 4 to 5 kg (8 to 10 pounds) quality calf starter containing Deccox.
4 to 6 month calves: 2.5 kg (5 pounds) quality calf starter plus high group TMR.
6 to 11 month calves: Manger sweepings from milk cow TMR.
Breeding to Springing:Haylage and corn silage. Add mineral, Ionophore, salt and vitamins.

This program is simple and works. Remember to always monitor body condition and be sure fresh water is available at all times. Actual heifer performance can be evaluated by using the heifer hustle program.

Environment. Environment is another important area to look at in heifer management programs. Some common sense changes can play a significant role in correcting or improving the environment of a heifer operation. Making the positive changes in environment is rewarding and the farmer really sees the benefits. It is important that vaccines and medications are reduced and more time can be spent in preventing disease problems in a herd.

Several methods I use to monitor heifer environment are to stand in the heifer pens and breath through my nose. If my nose burns and I cough or my eyes run, it is definitely a bad sign. After all, if I can't stand it for a few minutes, think of the calves that are there 24 hours a day. I also like to kneel down on the bedding. If my knees get wet, then I know the environment is poor for the calves. If the calves are not kept clean and dry, performance will suffer. Don't under estimate the importance of a good environment.

Performance Indicators

A veterinarian friend of mine, Dr. Jenks Britt once made a statement that if it can't be measured, it can't be managed. After a great deal of thought, I realized this is a very true statement for all areas of any dairy operation. Areas that I monitor in my heifer management programs are age at first calving and peak milk performance. These two areas are easy to monitor and can quickly provide the information you need to make proper management decisions.

I use two simple graphs (Table 4, 5) to illustrate these two parameters. When dairy producers see the economic losses from late calvings or poor heifer performance, it doesn't take them long to implement good heifer management programs.

The age to first calving chart (Table 4) often provides enough data to help a dairy farmer make a decision to change the heifer management program. If the heifers are too old, that is a good reason to start the heifer hustle and implement sound nutrition programs. When the dairy producer sees the economic loss each month on the graph, it seems to make the most impact and creates changes in heifer management programs.

Table 5 shows the peak milk yields necessary to achieve various levels of milk production. Peak milk is defined as the production between 40 and 100 days after calving. Not only does it point out heifer performance, but also draws the dairy farmers attention to the milking cows. Many times the heifers are doing fine, but the cows are performing poorly. This graph gives enough information to evaluate both heifer and milk cow nutrition and management programs.

Ideally I would like the heifers to peak around 75% of the milk cows peaks. If the ratio is 80% or higher you know the heifers are not the problem, but the cows are performing poorly. If the ratio is 70% or less, it indicates a problem with the heifers. Peak milk is useful and can monitor performance of all animals on a monthly basis. It is extremely easy to do and just takes a few seconds each month.

Genetics is not likely to be the limiting factor. Research shows that the genetic potential of the holstein cow is over 12,684 kg and most cows fall far below this potential.


Remember when selecting the best sire for your best cow, and the breeding results in a heifer calf, she will not enter the milking herd for 30 to 36 months from this breeding date. In other words, plan ahead when breeding your better cows. You are definitely determining your future herd.

There are many different ways to get involved with heifer management programs. The only limiting factor is the dairy farmer, the veterinarian and/or agricultural extension agent, and their ability to find the time to implement such programs. The farmer has to be interested and demand that such programs be implemented on their farms. If they don't push for change, chances are change won't happen.

Implementing a heifer management program has one of the largest economic impacts on a dairy farm. If you put as much effort as you should in your future herd, the end results will be rewarding. Make good heifer management part of your dairy farms normal operation.

Additional Readings

Applied Dairy Science Course - University of Alberta:
Raising Replacement Dairy Heifers

Alberta Dairy Management Fact Sheet:
The Cost of of Raising Replacements