Questions about Heifer Development

Spend an afternoon reading scientific journal articles like it’s the latest newsstand gossip and your head will be spinning like a carnival ride. If only I could master the art of speed-reading…
Everyone has a different approach to developing replacement heifers for their beef herds. Some simply focus on a good feeding and mineral program, consistent from weaning through breeding. Others approach with ideas of modifying nutrition levels and gaining the advantages of compensatory gains. Then there are physiological aspects of puberty; at what age and weight will the heifer reach puberty, how can we determine this point, and how can we manage this.
Reading all of these articles, I can get pretty wrapped up in trying to over think the topics and forget what I am looking for. Sometimes our best ideas start with the basics, then work their way up.
Here are some basic principles of heifer development covered in various papers:

  • Heifers will reach puberty at a specific weight and age, which can be influenced by genetics and management of their environment
  • Post-weaning management of heifers is critical to their longevity and productivity in the cowherd.
  • Early (preweaning) rapid growth can have a negative impact on development of the reproductive tract and endocrine system in heifers.
  • Once heifers reach puberty, fertility in the first cycle in lower, increasing with the second or third ovulation.
  • In order for a heifer to calve at 24 months of age, she must be cycling and ready to breed at 15 months.
  • Breeding heifers earlier in the season will increase their longevity in the cowherd with a restricted breeding window.

Now it’s your turn. What is important to you in replacement heifer development? What aspects do you have questions about? What obstacles stand in the way of breeding heifers to calve successfully and by the age of 24 months? Do you have any suggestions or opinions from your experience?


  1. Ryan, I have been running a heifer development program for about 5 years now. We buy 350 heifers at weaning time in the fall–from people who buy Registered Angus bulls from me. We select the mid-sized, prevaccinated, weaned heifers and from day 1, treat them the same that I treat my registered Angus heifers. We pelvic measure them at 12 months of age, OCV them and give them all the vaccinations, including Hadjo Bovis.

    Feeding is very important through the winter. We do not like to feed a lot of grain, but a corn silage mix is great. We aim for about 1.5 to 2 pounds of gain per day. They end up weighing around 800 pounds when we breed them in the spring. I AI most of them for early February and put low birth weight, calving ease bulls in for clean up. It is also important that the bulls have some growth to them, as well, as it is nice to have a little calf but if it never grows, it wasn't worth breeding for!

    But I am a firm believer that culling your replacement heifers every step of the way–pelvic size, phenotype, weight, and disposition are all very important traits! So far, we have been very successful with our program. Last year, we kept 80 of them for ourselves to calve out and didn't pull even one calf. We did lose one to the weather, but none because of the heifer.

    There are so many things that go into proper heifer development! I look forward to reading the comments/responses you receive!

  2. I am very concerned with the cows and heifers calving from drought areas this year. In reading information from BIF convention about fetal programming, those calves who received inadequate nutrition during gestation are programmed to do poorly. They may not gain as well, grow as well, and may have other problems expressed.

    This could affect the nation's cowherd for a lot of years. I really feel for the producers who may be able to hang on through this drought, but may have less efficient and thrifty cattle in 2-5 years because of it.

    This may be a good test of the “fetal programming” theory.

  3. Thanks for the comments Debbie. Fetal Programming isn't something that has come to mind, but I have seen a few articles on the topic. I'm sure I'll be looking more into this kind of stuff over the next few years.

    And those are the kinds of stories I'm wanting to hear! Never know where an idea will come from. Thanks!

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