The pros and cons of retaining heifers from young cows

Most producers have probably heard it said from another farmer at some point – the management practice that they will not keep heifers out of first-calf heifers. Livestock specialists have heard it from producers as well. And there is reasoning behind the management strategy. 

First-calf heifers are notoriously poorer mommas than more seasoned maternal veterans in the pasture. However, though she may not be the best momma on the place, there are reasons to keep her heifer calf in the herd. Many times, first-calf heifers are still growing when they calve. Therefore, they are using nutrients to develop themselves and their calf at the same time and may not receive as many nutrients as their counterparts that have older mommas. 

Due to the fact they are new to motherhood, first-calf heifers are more susceptible to having difficult births or dystocia. “They also may not provide quality colostrum and behaviorally they may not know what to do as a mother yet, it depends on how young they are when they were bred,” Heidi Ward, DVM, Ph.D., veterinarian and assistant professor associated with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, stated.

Despite the challenges that can come with some first-calf heifers, many producers choose to keep heifers out of first-calf heifers because those calves have the best genetics. 

“I fall on the side of, if we have a breeding program in place and we are selecting for the traits that are economically important in our operation, then our most current genetics should be coming out of our youngest cows or our 2year-old heifers,” Mark Johnson, Ph.D., livestock extension specialist with Oklahoma State University, said. “If we are working to select for the most genetically superior replacements, it stands to reason that is where we would find them.” 

With proper management of first-calf heifers, their calves should be just as healthy and vital as other calves in the herd. “They may, not always, but may need a little work if the first-calf heifer had a difficult pregnancy or subpar colostrum. But if her body condition is a nice, solid 6 at the time of calving, she should be fine,” Ward said.

First-calf heifers may need more managing to help them be ready to raise a good calf. The first step is to properly develop the first-calf heifers from the time of weaning to the time of breeding. “We need to make sure they are two-thirds their mature weight by the time we are ready to breed on them or turn in bulls, if they weaned off a little lighter because they were out of a 2 year old it may take some additional management or nutrition to get them there,” Johnson explained. 

The next step comes at breeding time. Some livestock specialists advise breeding the heifers before the older cows in the herd. Once all the calves are born, it gives the calves of first-calf heifers time to catch up with the others. When it is time to work and wean them, the calves are on more of a level playing field and are ready to be worked with all the calves.

Next, carefully manage calving seasons in order to know exactly when the first-calf heifers are due. Monitor the first-calf heifers closely at calving to ensure the calves receive colostrum in the first 24-hours of life. Producers should keep colostrum on hand to give the calf if it needs a boost. 

Finally, the ultimate decision whether the heifers out of first-calf heifers should remain as replacements comes through evaluating and monitoring the calves as they grow. By weaning, producers should be able to appraise the calf and decide if it is worth keeping.


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