Managing Dairy Heifers During the Winter Months

Attention to dairy heifer management is important for maintaining growth rates, minimizing health problems, and optimizing current and future profitability of the dairy farm.

Housing for Dairy Heifers

Housing of dairy heifers during the winter is critical. The housing system should allow for adequate air exchange without becoming drafty and yet protect the heifers from the extremes of the environmental elements. Oftentimes, respiratory problems increase in calves and heifers in the winter because the housing allows inadequate or excessive air exchange. Continuously monitor the breathing and coughing of the heifers. Accepting as normal that only a few heifers are coughing is not justification for avoiding facility modifications. If these health problems occurred last winter, facility modifications should be occurring now. Heifers housed outdoors need to have access to either natural or constructed windbreaks. Water sources need to be evaluated now for continuous availability of water and for minimizing a slippery surface around the water supply.

Feeding Programs Post-weaning

Farmers need to be careful that the long-term advantage of good growth rates in pre-weaned calves is not lost by how the weaned heifers are managed. Heifers will usually eat about 2.5% of body weight, so an adequate supply of high-quality forages needs to be in storage at this time. If forage supplies are limited, rations may need to be altered to stretch the forage supply. Overfeeding corn silage can lead to over-conditioned heifers, which results in increased feed costs and increased risk for metabolic disease and dystocia at calving. If diets are fed with a high proportion of corn silage, the amount of the diet fed needs to be restricted to control energy intake. Heifers need to average about 1.7 lb/day of growth for large breed calves or 1.3 lb/day for small breed calves to reach the desired breeding size at 13 months of age. The goal is for heifers to calve at 22 to 24 months of age at about 90% of their mature weight (1,300 and 900 lb for large and small breeds at calving, including the weight of calf). The management of the heifers during the winter months will be important in achieving these goals.

Evaluate Numbers of Heifers Raised

Now is the time to evaluate the number of heifers on the farm. With improved management and use of sexed semen, many farms are holding large inventories of heifers on the farm, sometimes 125% or greater of the number of cows. At a 30% to 35% cull rate, only about 85 heifers per 100 cows should be held on the farm. With high feed costs and limited forage in many situations, now is the time to sell excess heifers.


Management and housing strategies need to be in place to reduce the maintenance energy requirement of calves during the winter by providing ample clean, dry bedding; windbreaks; and other improvements to the housing to lessen the cold stress without going overboard to increase the risk of respiratory problems. Feeding of the calves and heifers during winter needs to be changed to provide adequate energy for continued growth rates achieved during other times of the year.

Source: Maurice L. Eastridge, Professor and Extension Dairy Specialist The Ohio State University

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