The Basics of Feeding Heifers Economically

In these tight economic times, shaving costs wherever possible can help dairies weather economic storms, with the hope of better prices returning. ( Maureen Hanson )

When we talk about feeding heifers economically, we need to look at ways to keep feed costs as low as possible, but, at the same time, feed for optimal heifer growth and weight gain.

Our goal is for heifers to weigh 85% of their mature weight after calving. For example, a Holstein heifer with a mature weight of 1400 lbs should weigh approximately 1,200 pounds after calving at 24 months of age or younger. This means that our heifer-raising program needs to be directed toward having heifers weighing 1,350 pounds. Keep in mind that before calving, the calf, fetal membranes etc. will weigh approximately 150 pounds.

How do we achieve these goals economically?

  1. Economical feeding programs start with forages. Forages form the foundation upon which rations are designed and land resources are effectively used. Then, grain mixes are fed to meet the nutrients not supplied by the forages themselves. Dry forages generally cost 6 cents per pound, whereas grain mixes can cost 10 to 20 cents per pound depending on the composition.
  2. Quality of the forages fed to heifers greatly influences feed costs. As the quality of the forage decreases, heifers eat less of the forage and they need more grain. Thus, lower- quality forages increase the total costs to feed these heifers. For example, a ration with a higher-quality hay may cost 25 cents less a day and heifers grow better. When you start multiplying these cost savings over a group of heifers, they can add up quickly.
  3. Balance rations for heifers using current forage analyses. Let’s look at an example for a 700-pound Holstein heifer. You are feeding her 4 pounds of grain and average-quality hay. You run out of the good hay and switch to another hay that is lower in quality - more fiber and less of the good stuff for growth. What happens: the heifer gains less weight each day, she calves older, or she calves lighter and may not milk as well after she calves. All of these options cost you money. We need to realize that younger heifers are more economical to feed than older heifers. Heifers under a year of age grow by putting down more of what we call lean tissue, muscle and bone. As she gets older, she lays down more fat in relation to lean tissue, which is more expensive to get a pound of gain. Also, older heifers eat more just to maintain their body weight.
  4. Use feed additives to improve weight gain. Bovatec or Rumensin can improve weight gain by 0.1 to 0.15 pounds per day and prevent coccidiosis in younger heifers. The growth-promotion effect of these additives can get heifers in the milking string a month earlier -- making her more quickly a profit-producing asset versus a profit-eating asset.
  5. Sometimes, using commodities such as corn gluten feed or soy hulls may be a cheaper alternative to a corn/soybean meal grain mix. Commodities can and should be used to develop the most economical grain mix that complements the forages being fed.

Bovatec is a registered trademark of Zoetis.

Rumensin is a registered trademark of Elanco.