First-calf heifers make up a third or more of the typical U.S. dairy herd, so their health and performance is paramount to operational success. 

Noah B. Litherland, assistant professor of animal science at the University of Minnesota, recently analyzed the opportunities and challenges of freshening the first-calf heifer. Among his finding and recommendations are:

  • Avoid overconditioning heifers in late gestation to reduce calving problems and help avoid depressed dry-matter intake after calving. Heifers consuming extra energy prior to calving also have been shown to have an increased incidence of postpartum metabolic disorders.
  • Help heifers adapt to their new environment and social structure prior to calving. Moving heifers from the grower setting to lactating housing at least six to eight weeks prior to their predicted calving date should help reduce stress at calving. Recent research has shown that it may actually be advantageous to commingle prefresh heifers with older, lactating cows prior to calving, to expose first-calf heifers to more intense social competition prior to calving. For heifers destined for free-stall herds, housing them in free stalls in the late-grower phase will help encourage free stall use later. The same is true about "practice" runs through the milking parlor for late-gestation heifers.
  • Avoid feeding anionic salts to pre-lactation heifers. Recent work by Michigan State University researchers concluded that anionic salts were detrimental to postpartum performance of first-calf heifers, and an unnecessary expense.
  • Avoid udder edema in first-calf heifers by employing prepartum nutrition strategies such as selecting forages low in potassium and reducing sodium intake.
  • Consider providing exercise for pre-fresh heifers to promote physiological and behavioral well-being. Research using trained multiparous cows showed that animals that regularly exercised on a treadmill prior to calving had lower heart rates and plasma lactate concentrations, and more effectively maintained acid-base homeostasis during treadmill tests, compared to non-exercised animals. Responses in younger animals may be similar. Regular exercise is achieved on many dairies via dedicated exercise lots and/or versatile drover's lanes.

Litherland also stresses the importance of protein in the prepartum heifer ration, preferring a crude protein level of at least 12.7 percent. He also noted that, in addition to the cost of raising a yet-to-be-productive asset, advanced freshening age (>24 mo.) of first-calf heifers has been shown to be more susceptible to mastitis and ketosis after calving.

Read more of Litherland's analysis of fresh-heifer management here.

Source: Dairy Calf and Heifer Association