Heifer fertility and carry over consequences for life time production in dairy and beef cattle

Animal. 2014 May:8 Suppl 1:91-104. doi: 10.1017/S1751731114000755. Epub 2014 Apr 3.


The rearing period has a key influence on the later performance of cattle, affecting future fertility and longevity. Producers usually aim to breed replacement heifers by 15 months to calve at 24 months. An age at first calving (AFC) close to 2 years (23 to 25 months) is optimum for economic performance as it minimises the non-productive period and maintains a seasonal calving pattern. This is rarely achieved in either dairy or beef herds, with average AFC for dairy herds usually between 26 and 30 months. Maintaining a low AFC requires good heifer management with adequate growth to ensure an appropriate BW and frame size at calving. Puberty should occur at least 6 weeks before the target breeding age to enable animals to undergo oestrous cycles before mating. Cattle reach puberty at a fairly consistent, but breed-dependent, proportion of mature BW. Heifer fertility is a critical component of AFC. In US Holsteins the conception rate peaked at 57% at 15 to 16 months, declining in older heifers. Wide variations in growth rates on the same farm often lead to some animals having delayed first breeding and/or conception. Oestrous synchronisation regimes and sexed semen can both be used but unless heifers have been previously well-managed the success rates may be unacceptably low. Altering the nutritional input above or below those needed for maintenance at any stage from birth to first calving clearly alters the average daily gain (ADG) in weight. In general an ADG of around 0.75 kg/day seems optimal for dairy heifers, with lower rates delaying puberty and AFC. There is some scope to vary ADG at different ages providing animals reach an adequate size by calving. Major periods of nutritional deficiency and/or severe calfhood disease will, however, compromise development with long-term adverse consequences. Infectious disease can also cause pregnancy loss/abortion. First lactation milk yield may be slightly lower in younger calving cows but lifetime production is higher as such animals usually have good fertility and survive longer. There is now extensive evidence that as long as the AFC is >23 months then future performance is not adversely influenced. On the other hand, delayed first calving >30 months is associated with poor survival. Underfeeding of young heifers reduces their milk production potential and is a greater problem than overfeeding. Farmers are more likely to meet the optimum AFC target of 23 to 25 months if they monitor growth rates and adjust feed accordingly.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Animal Husbandry
  • Animals
  • Body Composition*
  • Breeding
  • Cattle / physiology*
  • Dairying
  • Female
  • Fertility / physiology*
  • Lactation / physiology
  • Meat
  • Pregnancy
  • Reproduction / physiology