Putting calves at the core of your business

With industry figures putting the total cost of heifer rearing at £1,000 to £2,000, on a backdrop of rising input costs rising and increasing pressure to improve sustainability, it was no surprise that the inaugural National Livestock Conference was a sell-out this summer.

Heifers 2 - ForFarmers UK

Hosted by Cow Management at Harper Adams University, the conference programme addressed all aspects of calf rearing. Expert speakers covered topics from genomics and breeding management, management of the newborn calf, weaning management and nutrition as well as some of the key disease challenges seen on farm and the tools for managing them.

ForFarmers Youngstock product manager, Ann Coombes, was among the speakers at the conference. As well as discussing heifer nutrition, she highlighted the importance of taking a focused and consistent approach to management throughout all the stages of a heifer’s life

Importance of hitting target weights

Heifer nutrition post weaning is key to ensure they reach target weights to calve down at 22-24 months of age. Ann suggested splitting the calf rearing into three key stages helps focus the mind on the specific requirements needed for that stage in life.

“Each stage has different dry matter, energy, and protein requirement,” said Ann. “Ensure you know the quality of forages fed by testing regularly to account for quality fluctuations, as this is key to not overfeeding or underfeeding throughout the different growth stages. If you have low protein forages, it is an expensive constituent to chase and expensive to get it wrong.”

A happy heifer is a healthy heifer,” stresses Ann. “Taking into account other elements that contribute to heifer growth such as fresh air and good housing, and a lack of stress, will help to achieve your targets.”

Heifer tabel


  • Aim for high protein and energy dense forages for heifers not just milkers
  • Test all forages regularly for protein and energy and adjust rations accordingly
  • Feed a consistent ration day in, day out
  • Keep an eye on chop length to minimise sorting at the feed fence and encourage rumen development
  • Check sufficient feed access available across all heifer groups to meet intake targets
  • Water quality is key to help digestion and utilisation of key nutrients – ensure you have clean water troughs and easy access to water across the youngstock sheds
  • 10% of heifers should be able to drink at any one time
  • As the heifer grows, she has different space requirements so it’s worth checking you are providing this so each animal can access feed (see table below)

Ann advised making use of the feeds already on farm, forages and bought in straights, and formulating the heifer ration around them. The ForFarmers’ rationing programme can assist in formulating diets specifically designed for key stages within heifer growth, ensuring target parameters to meet heifer requirements are being met.

Heiger tabel 2

Tips for rationing heifers

  • Check vitamins and minerals are balanced (needed for cycling and conception)
  • Ensure the ration is cost effective by balancing feeds in stock with forages in stock
  • Keep an eye on protein levels
  • When using straights keep an eye on protein and levels of digestible fibre available

Ann suggested farmers monitor growth rates by weighing heifers more frequently. “Weighing heifers at the start of cycling around 8-9 months of age gives you the ability to amend rations accordingly if things aren’t on track. Don’t leave weighing to bulling, at around 12-13 months, when it’s too late to make corrections.”

Key heifer weight targets

  • From weaning to cycling, aim for 40% mature body weight (MBW) at 9 months to coincide with the start of cycling.
  • Heifers should be 55% of their MBW at 13.5 months for cycling and conception
  • Age 16 months–23 months heifers should be fit not fat

Ann also suggests that understanding your herd’s mature bodyweight when setting targets is key.