Coping with high feed costs is not just a challenge in the lactating herd, but in the heifer pen as well. Unfortunately, cutting corners on heifer rations today could be merely a cost-shifting versus cost-saving strategy. When heifers don’t reach the lactating herd efficiently and/or can’t perform when they get there, the dairy may pay an even higher price.

Dairy nutritionist Tyler Colburn is co-owner of Alpha Dairy Consulting, which serves dairies, calf ranches and heifer ranches in California’s central valley, from Fresno to Bakersfield. He has seen first-hand how heifer feeding decisions made in a tough dairy economy eventually proved burdensome to lactating herds.

“It’s easy to reduce ration cost per hundredweight in the short term, but the results six to 10 months later can be disastrous,” he shares. “When we get to that point, it’s an extremely hard problem to fix, and some of those heifers simply don’t make it as replacements.”

10 things to avoid

Some of the most common feeding errors that can compromise long-term replacement heifer performance include:

1. FEEDING FOR COST VERSUS PERFORMANCE – Contract heifer raiser Vance Kells of Circle Bar Heifer Ranch LLC,

Satanta, Kan., says feeding high-quality rations can be a tough sell in challenging times. Just like his dairy clients, Kells used to be able to feed $3/bushel corn and $25/ton corn silage, versus $7 corn and $65 silage today. “As recently as four years ago, I could feed heifers from five months to 220-days-pregnant springers for about $1 a day actual feed costs,” says Kells. “Today, that figure is about $2.20 a day.”

“It’s hard to swallow the fact that it may cost $400 to $700 more per head to raise a heifer compared to current sale barn prices,” he says. “But it’s important to look at every heifer as an investment, and not just a warm body in the herd. By raising heifers right, dairies can reap longer-term rewards in terms of genetic progress, breeding efficiency, disease protection and breeding to calving-ease bulls.”

2. FEEDING TOO LITTLE PROTEIN – Protein is the most expensive component of a heifer TMR. Colburn says feeding too little of it, or choosing cheaper sources that make metabolizable protein less available, will likely lead to under-sized heifers that are not ready to breed at desired age targets. This can be the start of a downward financial spiral, because those heifers will need to be on feed longer before they become productive members of the milking string. “They also will need to make more milk when they get there to offset those additional days on feed and, in most cases, they are the least likely animals to be able to do that,” he says.

3. UNDER- OR OVER-FEEDING FAT – Colburn says too little fat in the diet (often accompanied by too little protein) can impede reproductive organ development and delay the onset of puberty, again causing late entry to the lactating herd. “The grower phase also is a critical time for mammary tissue development, which can be impaired by dietary energy deficiency,” he notes.

Too much fat produces its own set of issues, including heifers that experience higher rates of dystocia, fresh-cow metabolic diseases, and going off feed in early lactation. And, North Carolina State University Dairy Nutrition Extension Specialists Brinton Hopkins and Lon Whitlow point out that feeding too much fat to heifers before puberty also interferes with mammary tissue development. It can cause fat infiltration of the mammary gland, which impairs future milk production capacity.

4. SKIMPING ON TRACE MINERALS, VITAMINS AND IONOPHORES – Nutritionists have, by necessity, become very creative using a variety of by-products to formulate heifer TMRs. But don’t forget to evaluate new rations for their levels of trace minerals and vitamins essential for heifer development, and supplement accordingly. Hopkins and Whitlow also point out that the minimal investment in ionophores for heifer rations is definitely worthwhile. These additives increase feed efficiency by reducing methane losses, increasing propionate in the rumen, and helping control coccidiosis.

5. OVERCROWDING – Improved breeding efficiency, excellent calf-rearing practices and sexed semen have contributed to a happy problem on many dairies — too many heifers. Trying to raise every animal in overcrowded facilities will impact nutrient intake and growth performance for all of them. Kells advises producers to look more selectively at the heifers they retain, culling animals early if they have poor growth and/or a history of respiratory disease.

In the breeding phase, Colburn suggests setting a three- or four-service limit and culling heifers that are still open. “If you look closely at the records, you’ll find that a lot of ‘problem breeders’ were also ‘problem growers,’” he points out.

“Given fairly healthy beef prices today, those animals are likely worth more out of the breeding pen and on the rail.”

6. LIMIT-FEEDING WITHOUT PROPER NUTRIENT CONCENTRATION – Limit-feeding heifers is becoming a widely adopted practice. “It can be done very successfully with one very important caveat,” says Colburn. “The ration must be highly concentrated to deliver the appropriate level of nutrients. If it’s not, heifers will be undernourished.”

Kells’ personal experience indicates that limit feeding requires pens to be slightly under-stocked to allow for ample bunk space.

7. FEEDING TOO MUCH STRAW – Straw is a popular component of heifer rations, but it can be too much of a good thing. Kells says sometimes heifers can’t physically consume enough of the ration if straw levels are too high. And Colburn has seen cases in which mixer wagons couldn’t handle the straw volume, leading to poorly mixed rations and particle sorting.

8. USING REFUSALS FROM THE LACTATING HERD – Colburn says this practice can be a “body condition nightmare,” because both the nutrient content and the sheer volume of available feed for heifers can vary so much. Plus, lactating ration formulation usually is not ideal for heifers. “The biggest problem we see is that heifers will get too fat on refusals when levels are not highly regulated,” says Colburn. “In our area, herds are having more success feeding refusals to late-lactation animals and/or partitioning them to heifers.”

9. FEEDING RATIONS TOO HIGH IN MOISTURE – TMRs with high silage content are likely to be highly palatable and readily consumed. The downside, says Colburn, is that as intakes go up, cost of gain can become less efficient. He advises adding straw to lower moisture content and slow the ration’s rate of passage.

10. NOT MEASURING PERFORMANCE – If there’s an upside to today’s tight margins, Kells says it’s the awareness that the current dairy economy has brought to performance evaluation. “You can’t improve what you don’t measure, and that’s everything from regular heifer weight and height measurements to ration costs to cost per pound of gain,” he advises. “An even bigger-picture analysis would be the lifetime value of every dairy cow — what it cost to raise her versus the return she provided, then working to improve those values for the herd over time.”