Four Ways to Help Heifers Transition into Motherhood

Dairy Heifer Laying Down

Calving is a stressful time for all cattle, but especially for heifers. Everything is new to them - they've got a new calf a new environment and a new milking routine to adjust to. After freshening, we need that heifer to acclimate quickly and start producing milk. Then, we're hoping she's healthy enough to become pregnant and start the whole process over again in a fairly short amount of time.


This period of change and stress can challenge a heifer's immune system and leave them susceptible to disease. These animals are the future of the herd and can cost up to $2,935 to raise until freshening.So what can we do to make sure heifers are set up for success when entering the milking string? In the months leading up to calving, there are some key management practices we can follow to make the transition into motherhood as smooth as possible. 


Manage their environment

Managing a heifer's environment can help mitigate stress, maintain growth rates and overall health so they're ready for calving. Consider the following practices:

  • Keep the heifer's housing area dry, well-ventilated and draft-free with plenty of bedding. This is going to reduce the risk of disease exposure.
  • Monitor average daily gain and create a structured feeding schedule, in which heifers are fed at the same time every day. 
  • Reduce stress and competition by refraining from overcrowding and providing animals with enough space to eat.
  • Facilities should have the capacity to keep animals protected from the elements and temperature changes. A heifer's immune system can become compromised when exposed to dramatic weather fluctuations. 


Minimize potential health problems

Heifers that stay healthy from birth through their pregnancy are generally going to have fewer health problems after calving and are able to make an easier transition into the milking herd. Vaccination, nutrition and pregnancy checks are key components to maintaining health. 



Along with establishing a modified-live virus vaccination program where heifers get two to three doses before breeding, administering a killed vaccine during late- to mid-gestation is going to help lay a foundation of protection for both the heifer and her future calf. Fresh heifers who receive a killed vaccine are more likely to enter the first lactation period with a robust immune system to fight off disease threats associated with stress such as bovine respiratory disease (BRD) and infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR).2

What's also impressive is how much of that killed vaccine protection the heifer can transfer into the colostrum. Killed vaccines have been shown to boost colostral antibody levels against bovine viral diarrhea virus (BVDV) types 1 and 2, IBR and viral causes of BRD.2

There are a lot of vaccines out there, and not every option is right for every operation. It's important to work with a veterinarian to understand what diseases are on the farm that require vaccination. 



Ensuring that nutritional needs for heifers are being met is crucial to help them conceive and give birth to a healthy calf. Their diet should be well-formulated with the guidance of a nutritionist and include quality feed ingredients. A variety of ingredients can be successfully fed to heifers as long as rations are appropriately formulated to meet energy, protein, mineral and vitamin requirements without dramatically increasing their body condition score as over-conditioned animals are more likely to develop metabolic problems. 


Pregnancy check

It may seem easy to pass up regular pregnancy checks on heifers, but leaving their reproductive status unknown is costly. Every month first calving is delayed beyond 22 months can cost $100 per heifer in lost milk production and additional raising costs.3 Ideally, pregnancy checks would occur around 30 days after breeding and again one month later to detect any pregnancy loss. 


Understanding your heifer's history

Each heifer should have a report card, telling us important information such as growth rates, disease incidence and vaccination history. These records can help us better understand why heifers may be having poor performance issues before or after calving. 

If we're dealing with sick heifers, records should help us answer questions like, "Have they been sick before? What treatment was used? Did it work?" Having sick animals is frustrating, but we're going to spin in circles unless we document these events so we can pinpoint what's wrong.

Monitoring disease incidence can also help make culling decisions. Any animal that's been treated multiple times for disease would be a good candidate to be culled before breeding begins. The next step to documenting these events is looping in your veterinarian. They can help you sort through information and find out what to make of it.

The steps we take to care for a heifer as she enters motherhood are going to create a cycle of success for your operation. Immediately, it's going to pay us back with the heifer having a healthy calf, then that calf is going to be off to a strong start to begin the whole process over again. 



1 Stuttgen S, Kohlman T, Hoffman P, Zwald A. There's nothing equal when raising heifers. Hoard's Dairyman 2008:87.

2 Smith BI, Reiger R, Dickens C, Schultz R, Aceto H. Anti-bovine herpesvirus and anti-bovine viral diarrhea virus antibody responses in pregnant Hostein diary cattle following administration of a miltivalent killed virus vaccine. Am J Vet Res 2015, 76(10): 913-920

3 Dairy 2007 Part II: Changes in the U.S. Dairy Cattle Industry, 1991-2007. National Animal health Monitoring Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. 


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