First calf heifer care
Of the calves that die at or soon after birth, half are due to calving difficulty. Heifers giving birth for the first time are the most likely to have problems. Extension beef specialist Rick Rasby at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln says with proper nutrition and development, a heifer can reach puberty and be bred at 11 to 14 months of age, or 55-60% of its mature weight. But a huge factor in calf mortality is the size of the baby it's carrying, which is largely determined by the genetics of the bull.
"The heifers are still trying to develop and grow, and the reproductive canal isn't mature yet," Rasby says. "So their makeup just isn't set up to handle a heavy calf. That's the reason why we really focus on breeding first-calf heifers to light birth weight bulls." The heifer will be better off if she's had good nutrition along the way. The major expense of a cow-calf enterprise is feed costs, so Rasby says the challenge is to get the heifer developed with an economical feeding program, and still maintain optimum health.
"If you have a herd that is going to calve in March or April, a lot of vegetative grasses, at least in the Northern Plains, are decreasing in quality," Rasby says. "Some kind of range meadow re-growth at that time, or dormant native range with a minimal supplementation, or even corn stalks with supplementation would work with developing replacement heifers." Rasby says some producers restrict feed for first-calf heifers just before calving to decrease the size of the newborn. However this practice can make her weak and compromise her ability to become pregnant with her second calf.
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