Feeding Your Heifers in 2014 and Beyond – Dr. Laurie Winkelman, Vita Plus

Posted on December 20, 2013 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Dr. Laurie Winkelman, Vita Plus dairy nutritionist and technical services specialist
It is no secret that feed costs are, by far, the largest expense on a dairy farm. In a relatively normal population of animals on a farm, about half the animals (the milking cows) are able to pay their own way, while heifers are truly an expense – or rather – an investment.

As nutritionists, we strive to keep out-of-pocket expenses on feeding heifers to a minimum, so sometimes we need to use a little creativity and cash to keep this group of animals healthy and growing. Add in the wild cards of drought stress, winterkill, or late harvest, and you end up with heifer diets that include different forage types, byproduct feeds, or management strategies to limit-feed this group of animals.

Although high quality lactating cow forages are always a priority, it is also very important to have a plan for feeding the heifer herd as well to minimize those extra purchased costs. Numerous producers have tried to make the best of the drought conditions and lack of alfalfa acres from winterkill by planting high-yielding grass and alternative crops to make tons to feed heifers.

The good and bad news about feeding heifers is that we don’t need the best quality haylage or corn silage to get the job done. Fall forage rye is an excellent example of a crop that can yield significant tons of medium-quality forage to meet growing heifer needs. When harvested at the boot stage, forage rye can yield moderate-quality forage that fits very easily into heifer diets, and can complement dry cow diets as well. Fall forage rye can be planted following soybean or corn silage harvest, and, the earlier it is planted in the fall, the greater tons harvested in the spring. Unfortunately, in a year like 2013 with lots of late-harvested soybean and corn acres, getting fall forage rye in the ground has also been a challenge.

Additionally, when looking at planting in the spring, sorghum and sudan grasses can prove to be excellent forage sources to fill a heifer diet. Further, a combination of peas and oats can yield high-tonnage, medium-quality feed . Barley, oats and triticale silages also can fill the heifer-feeding gap. The reason these feedstuffs fit heifer diets so well is because of their high fiber, low energy and moderate protein characteristics.

Byproducts such as corn gluten feed, distillers grain, or soy hulls may have a place in heifer diets, depending on nutrients needed in the diet, as well as ingredient cost. If using affordable byproducts in heifer diets has one challenge, it is the risk of increasing the energy density of the diet too much, resulting in over-conditioned heifers. Take stock of your forage inventory now and make plans to fill any shortages. With a little planning and “sacrificing” some acres to grow heifer quality feed, heifer feed costs can be minimized and a high quality heifer crop can grow.

Regardless of the creativity sometimes required to get heifers fed and keep them growing appropriately, it is also important to periodically monitor the heifer program performance. Hip heights, weights, breeding performance and culling events are all very good things to monitor your heifer program. Developing herd benchmarks for these measures and comparing them to industry standards will help keep your heifers on track, in spite of the sometimes-creative diets we put in front of them.

Category: Calf and heifer nutrition
Starting Strong - Calf Care