Want More Productive Cows? Focus on Replacement Heifer Development

Management : Cow & Calf

Management : Replacement

Nutrition : Supplements

NT Cosby, Ph.D.

Field Cattle Consultant

Replacement heifer nutrition and management can impact your cow herd for generations. 

Think of the most valuable cows in your herd. What makes them stand out? They probably…
  • Stay in good body condition
  • Breed back early in the breeding season
  • Calve without difficulty
  • Wean a heavy, healthy calf
… and they do it all consistently, staying in the herd for many years as a profitable cow.

But, let’s take it back a life stage. Your most valuable cows all started as replacement heifers. Get the most from your replacement heifer development program and set your cow herd up for long-term success with these tips:

Select the right replacement heifers

Use visual appraisal. Look for fertile, easy-fleshing females. A heifer that’s easy-fleshing stays in good body condition score (BCS), and if she stays in good body condition score, she has better odds of getting bred earlier.

Identify older heifers. Older heifers are typically the offspring of cows that calved early in the breeding season, which can imply that those heifers are fertile like their dams.

Refer to calving records. Without records, we tend to select heifers that are bigger, not necessarily older. If large heifers are consistently selected as replacements, you might end up with cows that are too big for their environment. Large cows can also require more supplemental feed to breed back promptly and raise their calves.

Take reproductive tract scores 45 days before breeding. Work with a veterinarian to score reproductive tracts. Cull heifers scoring below a 3 on the 1 (immature or infertile) to 5 (cycling) scoring scale. Heifers that score a 4 or 5 are ideal replacement heifers. Reproductive tract scoring can also identify freemartins that may have slipped through the cracks.

Set heifers up for success before first breeding

Target proper weights. Once you select your replacements, aim for them to reach 60-65% of their mature weight at breeding (around 14-15 months of age). Research has shown you could sacrifice conception rates and longevity if heifers are below 55% of mature weight at breeding.1

Monitor growth rates. Heifers should grow 1.25-1.5 pounds per head per day from weaning until first breeding to meet target weights. Monitor heifer weights to ensure they’re on track. 

Provide nutrition to hit growth rates. Select high-energy nutrition, like Purina® Accuration® supplements with Intake Modifying Technology®, to complement your forages and help provide predictable intake that delivers targeted gains. Depending on weather and forage conditions, spring-born heifers require 4-8 pounds of supplemental nutrition like Accuration® Range Supplements per day.
Don’t forget about mineral. Offer Purina® Wind and Rain® Mineral year-round to build mineral reserves ahead of high mineral requirements during pregnancy and at calving.

Choose the right environment. Replacement heifer development should be done in the same environment that they’re going to work in as productive cows. If you have pasture and forage available to develop heifers, that’s the way to go.

Consider breeding heifers earlier. First-calf heifers typically have a longer postpartum interval. To accommodate, consider breeding replacement heifers for the first time a month before the mature cow herd. Heifers then get 20 to 30 days extra to come back into estrus and breed back with the mature cow herd.

Focus on nutrition during the first pregnancy

Maintain high-quality nutrition. Bred heifers have increasing nutritional needs throughout gestation. They’re eating to nourish a fetus and to grow to 85% of their mature weight by first calving. Continue offering supplemental nutrition, like Accuration® Liquid supplement or Accuration® Range Supplements, designed to match bred heifer requirements with changing forage conditions.

Keep your eye on shifting targets. Target heifers to be around 85% of their mature weight and in a body condition score 6 at calving. Score heifers 90 days before calving to allow adequate time to help heifers add body condition if needed. Research shows heifers in proper body condition score at calving show optimized rebreeding success. Conversely, heifers with inadequate body condition at calving can have a 24% reduction in rebreeding success.2

Does your nutrition program stack up? Find out with a Proof Pays trial.

Grussing, T. 2020. Getting replacement heifers ready to breed. South Dakota State University Extension.
Selk, G. 2014. Body condition score at calving is the key to young cow success. Oklahoma State University Extension.