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Nutrition of a Commercial Dairy Heifer

The commercial dairy heifer show program is based on borrowing a dairy heifer and returning her to the dairy producer at the end of the season. What she is fed and how she grows during this time impacts the quality of the heifer returned to the farmer, as well as her show ring performance. Her nutrition is a vital part of her development and includes many considerations, both with grains and forages.

To have her first calf at 24 months old, a Holstein heifer must be at least 800 pounds by the time they are 14 months old. To reach this goal, the heifer should be gaining 1.7-2 pounds per day. Smaller breeds are closer to 1.3 pounds per day. This is her average daily gain (ADG), and it, along with height growth, are measurements of a successful feeding program. This Penn State Extension website has charts and tables for both height and weight growth for each dairy breed. Table 1 shows the US Holstein weight growth chart by month of age.

It’s appropriate to weigh on a scale or with a weight tape every other week or month to establish her rate of growth and how her ration will need to be adjusted if necessary. To properly use a weight tape, the calf/heifer should stand on level ground, with her head held upright. Without being too tight, the weight tape should be snug and placed around the heart girth. This will be just behind the shoulder blades and front legs. The Colburn Company has calf and heifer/cow weight tapes at Weigh Tapes. Coburn.

Not enough energy and protein levels lead to being underweight and undersized, delayed puberty, harder breeding, longer to enter the herd, and less milk produced. Too high energy levels in the feed will cause over-conditioning and less milk production.

When considering feed energy levels, take into account forage quality, body condition, size, growth rates, environmental stresses, housing environment, and exercise levels. Table 2 addresses times to increase dietary energy. This includes when it is muddy and wet, windy, and cold. Consideration should also be given that the heifers are clipped and could need more feed energy to stay warm during the winter show seasons. Remember to have free choice, clean water available at all times.

Energy levels should be balanced with protein levels. Substantial protein allows the heifer to grow as much as they genetically can. Crude protein (nitrogen content of the ration multiplied by 6.25) should range between 13-17% depending on the heifer’s weight.

Crude Protein (CP)

Weight of Heifer


200-500 pounds


500-800 pounds


Over 800 pounds

A properly balanced ration is achieved through a combination of forages and grain. The ratio of forages to grain will change as the heifer’s weight changes. Quality forages like hay, grass, or silage, are essential to heifer growth. Hay samples can be tested for nutritional content through county extension offices. In general, hay should be free from weeds and mold, and should smell good, not musty.


Nutrition is key to raising a well-sized, healthy animal. When creating a feeding program for a dairy heifer, consider energy and protein levels as well as the quality of forages. Remember that heifers are clipped during the winter season, and energy levels need to be paid especially close attention during the cold, wet, windy, and muddy months. To further refine a ration for nutrients, speak with a dairy nutritionist, a dairy producer, or an experienced program leader.




Penn State Extension –


Iowa State University Extension -


Coburn Company


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