You probably don't need much encouragement to step up to the all-you-can-eat buffet at your local restaurant, or come back for seconds. That's not the case for a heifer that has been recently introduced to a feed bunk environment.

No matter how tantalizing the "buffet" is, she needs encouragement to approach the feed bunk for the first time. After all, it's not worth eating if she has to squeeze between her pen mates just to stand at the bunk or fit her head through a headlock that bangs loudly whenever her nose reaches the feed.
You can help ease your heifers' anxiety about eating at the feed bunk. Use these five tactics to coax your heifers toward the bunk and keep them coming back.

1. Provide adequate bunk space.

Bunk space is one of the first factors to consider when coaxing heifers to use the feed bunk. Ample bunk space per animal reduces competition for feed, which promotes good feed intake.

Regardless of whether you use headlocks or a neck rail, give heifers plenty of bunk space. Remember, the amount of bunk space needed per heifer increases as she grows. Use the table on page 54, "Give heifers enough room to eat," as your guide.

2. Size it right.

Properly sized neck rails and headlocks also help heifers adjust to eating at a feed bunk. Therefore, match the size of the neck rail or headlocks to the size of the animals that will use them.

When using a neck rail, two key dimensions must increase as your heifers grow: the height of the neck rail and the throat or curb height. (Please see, "Increase neck rail height as heifers grow," at left.)

You also will need to adjust throat or curb height when using headlocks, says Dan McFarland, Penn State extension agricultural engineer in York, Pa. Ask a headlock manufacturer to help you determine proper curb height and headlock size for each group size on your dairy or heifer enterprise. To learn more about choosing headlocks for heifers, please see, "What to look for when buying headlocks," at right.

According to the neck rail dimensions suggested in "Dairy Freestall Housing and Equipment," a publication of MidWest Plan Service, you should introduce a neck rail when heifers reach about six months of age, or weigh at least 350 pounds.

And for headlocks introduce when heifers reach at least four to six months of age, or weigh about 350 pounds, McFarland says.

3. Use care with lock-ups.

Heifers tend to shy away from headlocks more so than a neck rail, so be patient when introducing them to this type of feed barrier.

To help heifers adapt to headlocks, try the following approach, suggested by Temple Grandin, associate professor of livestock handling and behavior at Colorado State University:

Allow heifers to put their heads through the headlocks, but don't lock them up the first time they do so. Instead, let them move around freely, exploring the headlocks as they eat. As soon as they are comfortable entering the headlocks to eat, lock them up for 30 seconds and release. Gradually increase the time spent in the headlock by 30 seconds to one minute each time.

4. Reduce stress.

Stressful situations - a ration change or dehorning, for example - can discourage heifers from stepping up to the feed bunk.

Therefore, perform management tasks such as ear tagging and dehorning well in advance of moving heifers into a feed bunk environment, says Pat Hoffman, dairy scientist at the University of Wisconsin's Marshfield Agricultural Research Station.

Likewise, make ration changes before the move.

The lower the stress you place on your heifers, the better they will be able to adjust to a feed bunk.

5. Keep water close by.

Access to an ample water supply promotes good feed intake by your heifers.

Heifers may have an easier time adapting to the feed bunk if you offer water at the bunk instead of placing it in another location in their pen.

Make water very accessible at the feed bunk, Hoffman says. Heifers are used to finding feed and water together in their hutch, so it may lessen their apprehension about using the feed bunk if they find water and feed close together in their new pen.

What to look for when buying headlocks
Headlocks should step up in size as heifers grow. In addition to proper size, keep the following points in mind as you shop for headlocks, says Dan McFarland, Penn State extension agricultural engineer in York, Pa.

1. The largest animal in the group should be able to fit her head through the headlock opening without a lot of twisting or maneuvering.

2.When closed, the headlock should not place unnecessary pressure on the heifer's neck.

3. Choose a headlock with a safety-release mechanism that releases a heifer if she slips and falls during a lock up.

4. Look for a headlock with an adjustable neck width.