Facility features: Feed barriers for young heifers

Posted on January 24, 2023 in
By Noah Litherland, Ph.D., Vita Plus dairy technical specialist
When building or updating heifer facilities, producers must choose what feed barrier(s) to incorporate into the heifer pens. Consider the following questions to help you identify the best option for your heifers and management system.

1. Slant bars, feed rails or headlocks?
In most cases, slant bars or feed rails are preferred for younger heifers. Slant barns are a lower-cost option, provide a feed barrier to heifers, and help train them to eat in a group setting. If using feed rails, ideally the feed rail height is adjustable to keep heifers confined to the pen, but allow the freedom to eat with limited barrier. Heifers will need to learn to use headlocks prior to entering the breeding pen. Considerable thought and proper design and installation can make headlocks successful for heifers.

2. Are headlocks needed?
Or will a head-catch or pinch-gate serve as a better means of working with heifers? A simple head-catch or a pinch-gate will often suffice when working with smaller heifers (350 to 500 pounds).

3. How many workers are available to complete heifer management tasks?
The feed barrier system should be thought of as a tool to help achieve heifer growth goals AND allow for safe and efficient interactions between heifers and staff.

4. How high and wide is the curb where the barrier will be mounted?
A shorter and narrower feed curb is preferred for heifers; however, the curb is often used for mounting roof supports, so a 9- to 10-inch curb is often standard. A narrow curb that keeps feed out of the litter alley and heifers’ feet out of the feed is ideal. The curb needs to be properly sized for mounting and support of the feed barrier system.

5. How much offset between the feed deck and the scrape or litter alley?
An offset of 4 to 8 inches between the feed deck and the scrape or litter alley is preferred to bring the feed closer and within reach of the heifers. Increasing the offset can aid in overcoming curb width challenges. Throat height of heifers using the feed barrier as well as length from the point of shoulder to the back of the lower jaw should be measured and compared with proposed designs of the feed barrier. Be sure to account for variation in heifer size and age.

6. How many heifers will be housed in the pen and how much space per heifer is needed?
The number of headlocks or slant bar slots defines the number of heifers a pen can house if stocking to a maximum of 100% at feeding. A feed rail provides more flexibility, but avoid overcrowding heifers at feeding time.

7. Can the heifer facility accommodate changes in throughput?
Consider the effects of calving surges as well as short- and long-term expansion plans. Map heifer flow and evaluate maximum capacity requirements.

8. What are the critical dimensions for headlocks for heifers?

Heifer weight, lb 250-350 350-500 500-650
Minimum headlock width, in 4-5 5-6 6-7
Headlock height (curb to top of headlock), in 27 32 32
Maximum throat height, in 11-12 12-13 14-15

9. How often will heifers be fed?
Every-other-day feeding (employed during the winter) results in a larger windrow of TMR than every-day feeding and may require a larger feeding apron, adjusted approach to the feed barrier, or changes in feed push-ups to accommodate varying feeding strategies.

10. Will heifers be fed ad libitum or in restricted amounts?
Heifers fed in restricted amounts will require enough space for all heifers to eat at the same time to reduce the risk of compromised feed intake among lower-ranking heifers.

11. How often will feed be pushed up?
Feed push-up frequency influences bunk design to ensure feed is within reach, but not pushed over the top of the feed barrier. Feed barriers for young heifers are often shorter than those used for older heifers or cows, so feed push-up intensity should be considered when selecting a feed barrier for heifers.

12. Will the TMR be dense (greater concentrate) or fluffy (greater forage)?
For heifers that are less than 350 pounds, diets are typically 60% concentrate and 40% forage, and have a greater density than most TMRs for older heifers and cows.

13. What are the risks associated with incorrect feed barrier design?

  • Decreased feed intake and growth
  • Increased disease (coccidia) risk due to decreased feed intake (and subsequent decreased coccidiostat intake)
  • Failure to train to appropriately use the feed barrier
  • Increased labor to catch heifers that do not lock up
  • Increased abrasion around the eyes might predispose heifers to pinkeye
  • Heifer injury
  • Abnormal hoof growth (corkscrew in front hooves)
  • Heifers getting their heads stuck in headlocks
  • Heifers ripping out ear tags

In summary, many factors should be considered when choosing a feeding barrier for young heifers. Explore feeding barriers on several farms and evaluate design options before committing to a system for your heifers. Measure your heifers to guide you in the selection process. Develop a vision for your facility needs in the short- and long-term to meet your heifer rearing goals.

Category: Animal handling
Calf and heifer nutrition
Facility design
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