Growth targets and rearing strategies for replacement heifers in pasture-based systems: A review

J. R. Roche, N. A. Dennis, K. A. MacDonald, C. V.C. Phyn, P. R. Amer, R. R. White, J. K. Drackley

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Dairy heifer growth and liveweight at first calving are regarded as important management variables affecting profitability and animal welfare. However, the appropriateness of heifer growth rate targets for different farming systems is not clear. Retrospective assessments of the association between heifer liveweight and subsequent productivity indicate significant benefits in milk production and, even, reproduction from increasing liveweight at breeding and first calving. However, prospective interventionist experiments do not concur, with very variable effects of liveweight at breeding on milk production and with only limited evidence of a positive effect of first-calving liveweight on first-lactation milk yield. In addition, any benefit in the first lactation is not evident in subsequent lactations in the limited number of long-term studies reported. Pre-weaning nutrition and average daily weight gain are areas of increasing interest, with lifelong increases in milk production resulting from accelerated growth rates during the first 8 weeks of life, indicating a possible significant return from a short-term investment. This could be one reason for the inconsistent effects of heifer liveweight at breeding and first lactation on milk production. Although the effect of pre-weaning average daily gain on heifer liveweight is short-lived, a recent meta-analysis indicated that pre-weaning average daily gain explains 22% of the variation in first-lactation milk production. Whether these differences in animal physiology have relevance in grazing systems, wherein heifers and cows do not consume sufficient nutrients to reach their potential, requires investigation. Despite considerable extension efforts over successive decades, current evidence indicates that failure to provide the new-born calf with sufficient high-quality colostrum is common. To understand the reasons for suboptimal colostrum feeding requires social research, with appropriate extension strategies developed to elicit practice change. Although there can be little doubt regarding the importance of heifer rearing to the profitability and sustainability of the farming business, the collective literature points to a failure of retrospective analyses in determining the cause of poor heifer performance. In reality, it is likely to be a combination of factors. The objective of this review is to investigate the effect of liveweight gain at various stages of the growth cycle of the heifer on the milk-production capacity of the lactating animal.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)902-915
Number of pages14
JournalAnimal Production Science
Issue number7
StatePublished - 2015


  • calf
  • compensatory growth
  • heifer management
  • liveweight targets

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Food Science
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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