Nutrition is important throughout the heifer's first two years of life especially during 3 critical phases: fetal to pre-weaning phase, weaning to breeding phase as well as breed-back phase.
Fetal to pre-weaning phase
It is important to start caring for replacement heifers even before heifers calves are born. Studies have shown that neglecting the cow while she is pregnant will result in heifer calves suffering the consequences. Taking care of the pregnant cow will improve the heifer's overall health at birth and throughout her entire life span.
Hence, it is vital to keep cows at a good body condition score throughout the year, especially during the 9 months of gestation. Once the calf is born, nutrition still plays an important role because the cow is giving critical nutrients to the calf.
Weaning to breeding phase
The second most important phase in a heifer calf's life is during weaning period. While providing quality nutrition throughout cow's gestation prior to weaning is important, it is even more crucial to ensure that high quality nutrition is provided during weaning phase.
Use complete or semi-complete starter feed for a start. After 2 - 3 weeks, it is recommended to develop heifers in the same environment as that of productive cows. Provide some pastures and forage to develop heifers.
A suggested gain of 1.25 - 1.75 pound is ideal during this phase to avoid over-conditioning. High quality forages are needed to help achieve such gains. If you are using medium to low quality forage, more supplementation may be needed to maintain growth.
Once heifers are bred, they should be mature enough to sustain themselves in a forage-based scenario. If sufficient forage is available, providing a baseline protein supplement is a good idea as it allows the heifers to cruise into the final phase - breed-back phase.
If proper care is not provided to the heifers during breed-back phase, all those effort and investment prior to that would be wasted as we have to cull a heifer that we can't get bred back.
Breed-back phase is challenging as the heifers are still growing. During this phase, increase supplementation - at least 45 days before breeding season and continue for a minimum of 45 days into the season. This will ensure that the calf heifers will have sufficient nutrition going into the second round of breeding.
Forage quality will determine how much additional supplementation is needed. If heifers have quality forage, then an average of 5 pounds per head per day of supplement is sufficient. If the forage quality is low, perhaps an average of 10 pounds per head per day of supplement is needed.
A common mistake among farm owners is not giving enough nutrition for first calf heifers leading up to breed-back. This will definitely impact the next generation.
Once the female is bred-back for second time, she is well on her way to becoming a productive cow.