Feed costs comprise 55 to 60 percent of the total cost of rearing dairy replacement heifers, so keeping a sharp eye on feed expenses can have a tremendous impact on enterprise profitability. Pat Hoffman, dairy scientist and heifer management specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says managing feed costs need not mean sacrificing heifer quality. To achieve both, he recommends:

  • Understand heifer nutritional requirements – The nutritional requirements of heifers are much different than those of lactating cows. Use published guidelines specifically for heifers when formulating rations.
  • Adjust ration to changing environment – Energy adjustments based on environmental conditions are important for heifers, because they often are reared in conditions outside of thermal neutrality. This is especially true for younger heifers (<300 pounds). 
  • Avoid over-conditioning – Too much energy in the ration adds up to unnecessary expense plus over-conditioned heifers. Those animals are more prone to calving difficulties and metabolic diseases at freshening.
  • Produce high tonnage forages –High-tonnage crops such as corn silage usually are the lowest-cost forages to produce. This high-energy forage source can be tailored to heifer rations by altering agronomic practices to increase tonnage and decrease energy content. Many low-energy forage sources work well in heifer rations.
  • Feed protein wisely – Younger heifers need more protein, but levels should be adjusted down as heifers age to avoid unnecessary feed costs. Excessive protein does not enhance stature growth.
  • Feed precise amounts of minerals and vitamins – Minerals and vitamins often are over-fed in an effort to ensure adequate levels. Save on unnecessary costs and feed heifers precisely by testing feedstuffs and then supplementing accordingly.
  • Don’t waste feed – Do not feed heifers off the ground, and do not provide unlimited feed. A simple bunk scoring system has great utility in precisely feeding heifers. In general, heifers should be fed to near-empty bunk scores.
  • Consider ionophores and growth promotants – Studies have demonstrated that these supplements improve feed efficiency in heifers. To capture maximum benefit, diets may have to be slightly limit-fed. True ionophores also control coccidiosis.
  • Consider genomics – Genomic testing can be done on dairy calves, with results available by the time a heifer is four months of age. Consider culling dairy heifers with poor genetics at a very young age to reduce the number of heifers reared. This strategy is most effective when a dairy has an excess supply of heifers.


Read additional heifer-feeding advice from Hoffman.