Few thing in the cattle business are riskier than developing, calving-out and rebreeding first-calf heifers. These little darlings hold so much hope and promise for the future of the cowherd, yet often times fail in bringing this expectation to full fruition. In my mind, the most vexing part of the whole endeavor is that the failure of heifers is generally not their fault.
Well, at least not entirely their fault; I mean really you would think that they would have said something when they were losing body condition last fall, or they would have understood that they weren’t carrying enough reserves when it was time to calve. No, they made no mention of the heavier-than-usual calf they were carrying because the winter was so cold and never even asked you to watch them a little closer as a result. They forever held their peace. Then, they left you mouth agape when they failed to rebreed and leave you wondering what in the world to do with them. All of that time and effort was scattered to the wind.
Of course, this nightmare can easily be turned into a fairy tale with a few easy and relatively simple adjustments to how you handle your females. First off, let’s talk about assessing the state of your first-calf heifers. As I’m sure you know, the easiest way to evaluate the relative well-being of a group of heifers is to assess body condition. It is too late to worry about what condition they were in during the fall or at calving, that is water under the bridge.
Right now, we have a great opportunity to make some adjustments, if needed, to increase the probability of the first-calf heifer group to rebreed with their second calf. So, take a look at the heifer group and gauge what kind of condition they are in. If you can see the individual sections in the tail head, see the pin bones and there is no fat around the tail; they are too thin. You have to remember, a heifer is trying to repair the repro-tract after calving, milking for her new calf, and she is still growing. So, she is going to need to carry a little more cover than a running age cow into the breeding season if she is to be successful.
The amount of condition she carries from calving to breeding is going to have a big impact on how quickly she comes into heat during the breeding season and how quickly she settles when exposed to the bull. A first-calf heifer in good condition should return to heat in less than 60 days after calving. If she is not in very good condition, she could take as much as 90 days to return to heat, which will probably make her a short-bred in your herd, if she settles at all.
So, the ideal time to make adjustments to nutrition management is about the time she hits peak lactation, which occurs around 30 days after calving. This is when her nutrient requirements are going to be the absolute highest of the cycle. If she is in pretty good condition at this time, you probably don’t have to worry about her too much. However, if she is a little on the thin side, she is only going to get thinner unless you turn up the gas on her nutrition program. A first-calf heifer at peak lactation is going to require at least 58 percent total digestible nutrients (TDN) and 9.3 percent crude protein (CP) in her diet just to maintain what she has. If she needs to gain some weight before breeding, she will probably need at least a 65 percent TDN and 12.1 percent CP diet.
A decent quality hay or haylage should provide her with enough nutrition to hold her weight if she doesn’t need to gain any before breeding. If your hay is not so good, supplement with a pound or two of distiller’s grain to make sure she is getting what she needs. It will help immensely if you can keep and feed the first-calvers separate from the running age cows so they don’t get pushed away from the feed bunk. Conversely, if she needs to gain some weight before breeding, you may need to add 2 or 3 pounds of distiller’s grain and maybe 3 to 4 pounds of cracked corn. If they start getting a little chubby and you start to see some fullness in the tail head area, you can always back them down to a maintenance ration so they don’t get too fat before breeding.
Another thing to keep in mind for cows and heifers that are a little thin coming off an exceptionally cold January and February is the opportunity to capitalize on compensatory gain. I’ve seen a lot of pretty tough looking cattle in the area over the last few weeks. Cattle used pretty much everything you fed them this winter, plus some of their fat reserves just to stay warm. The restriction in nutrients will trigger a response to utilize additional nutrients much more efficiently than they normally would for a short period time (3 to 4 weeks); starting when the temperature gets above about 20 degrees. If you give cattle all they can eat plus a little energy supplement during this period they can easily put a body condition score (85 lbs.) on in less than a month. If you’ve got thin cows or heifers, take advantage of this opportunity right now to put on some really cheap gain. You can shape them up for breeding in pretty short order if you use your resources right.