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The ultimate struggle; first calf heifer breed back
Spencer VanMeter

Raising your own replacement heifers is costly and time consuming. Most cows do not actually become profitable until they have had at least three calves. So how do you get them to rebreed after their first calf so that they can remain in the herd and not be a financial drain?

A big factor in rebreeding success starts months before the first calf hits the ground. Adequately feeding heifers and monitoring their condition can help to speed the healing process once the calf is born and get heifers cycling again. 

Sandy Johnson, Kansas State University Research and Extension beef cattle specialist, recommends heifers weigh 80%-85% of their mature body weight at calving, and have a body condition score of 6. If a heifer’s body condition score is increased to the level recommended by Johnson by the time calving starts, the likelihood of calving difficulty decreases. Calving difficulties cause unwanted strain and stress that may delay the healing of the reproductive tract.

The time period following calving is one of the more crucial periods for a cow, in this case a first-calf heifer. Heifers that are able to begin cycling earlier and sooner after they calve tend to have better conception rates. For producers who have shorter breeding seasons it is all the more important that their heifer’s cycle sooner rather than later.

Calving heifers ahead of the rest of the cowherd is another way a producer can give their first-calf heifers more time to get caught up before the breeding season. For every 10 days after calving, there is a 7.5% increase in cycling among cows before the breeding season begins. 

Calving 3-4 weeks ahead of the main cowherd allows for the producer to spend plenty of time monitoring heifers and intervening when a calving issue arises. “A 20% lower rate of cycling at the start of the breeding season was observed when heifers were in labor for a time period of over one hour,” said Glen Selk, professor of animal science at Oklahoma State University.

The use of calving-ease and or low-birthweight bulls can also help to mitigate calving difficulties. Calving difficulties due to large calves, poor nutrition, or not being mature enough harm the chances that a heifer will heal and cycle before the bull is turned out.

When calving difficulties are experienced there can be a decrease in conception rates during the following breeding season that can be as high as 16%.

Early weaning can be beneficial in getting heifers to breed back that have a lower body condition score. Pulling the calves off early not only helps take stress away from the heifer, but it also shortens the time to her first estrus cycle. In certain cases where females have a body condition score of 4 or less pregnancy rates could increase by more than 45% when calves are weaned early. 

There are many different ways to go about feeding your first-calf heifers, but be cognizant that you can wrap up a lot of money in feed and still be shorting them exactly what they need. 

Nutrition is an important building block to get heifers to rebreed. Nutrition goes a long way towards helping that heifer heal her reproductive tract, produce milk for her calf, and meet her own minimum daily energy requirements, and still have enough left over to continue growing. 

It is recommended first-calf heifers are sorted off from the rest of the cow herd to not only keep a more watchful eye, but to also feed them better. A first-calf heifer has higher nutritional needs than a mature cow as a heifer does not finish growing until after reaching three years of age. Producers put a lot of strain on first-calf heifers by wanting them to raise a calf, breed back and grow a calf inside them, and continue growing and maturing all at the same time. 

This is not possible if they are not on a high plain of nutrition.

At peak lactation, which occurs about one month after calving, her nutritional requirements will also be peaking. Typically a first-calf heifer in this situation will need at a minimum 58% total digestible nutrients (TDN) and just under 9.5% crude protein (CP) to maintain her condition.

If you are wanting your first-calf heifers to gain weight moving forward into the breeding season their daily requirements are going to increase to 65% TDN and at least 12% CP.

First-calf heifers require a higher level of management than the rest of the cowherd in order to maximize their chances of breeding back early and remaining in the cow herd. It is important to keep in mind the costs associated with getting them to this point in their life.

First-calf heifers are pushed hard, and a lot is expected of them in order earn a place in the cow herd. An equal part of that rides on the producer to be timely when managing them and getting them what they need when they need it if they want them to be profitable in the future.

Spencer VanMeter, a 2017 Pawnee Heights High School graduate, is a senior majoring in agricultural business at Fort Hays State University. He is the son of Justin VanMeter, Rozel.