Dairy Heifer Production

In most herds, dairy farmers replace 25 to 30 percent of the herd each year. These replacements represent a significant financial investment.
Dairy Heifer Production - Articles


Dairy Heifers

Dairy heifer production in the northeast and the Midwest has traditionally been the responsibility of individual dairy farmers. However, milk producers are increasingly buying bred replacement heifers or contracting their own heifers out to other growers.

The dairy farmer's goal should be to raise healthy, well-grown heifers that calve and enter the milking herd by 22 to 24 months of age. Producers should strive for an average calving age of 23 months. Research and field data indicate that lifetime production and profitability increase with calving slightly below 24 months of age.


As the dairy heifer grows, its housing requirements change. Heifers should be kept in dry, well-ventilated, draft-free quarters that have sufficient bedding. Humidity and odor control are necessary for the heifer's health and comfort. In addition, you must have a handling facility for routine health examinations and breeding.

Before weaning, keep calves in individual pens to isolate them from older animals. Several types of calf facilities are recommended, including individual calf hutches, pens with three solid or slatted walls and a slatted front opening for feeding, and calf hutches grouped together in a three-sided building. For the first month or two following weaning, house three to five calves in a large hutch or shed with an outside yard. Calves 4 to 11 months of age need 6 inches of bunk space (feeding area); calves 12 to 17 months need 12 inches of bunk space; and heifers over 18 months need 18 inches of bunk space to ensure adequate feed availability. When the calves are 4 months old, they should be moved to a grow-out facility.


For the first three days of its life, a calf should receive two equal feedings of colostrum and transition milk daily. After that, feed pasteurized whole milk, fresh or fermented colostrum, waste milk, or milk replacer twice a day. Feed at a rate of 12 percent of initial body weight from birth to weaning. Within several days of birth, offer the calf fresh water and small amounts of grain. When weaning occurs at 4 to 6 weeks of age, the calf should be consuming at least 1.5-2.0 pounds of grain per day. Following weaning, and once the calf is consuming 5 to 6 pounds of grain daily, it can have hay or other forage on a free-choice basis. Regardless of the type of forage fed, all ages of heifers should receive a grain mixture. The amount fed will depend partly on the calf's age, but primarily on the quality of the forage.

After the calves are 9 months old, they can be put on pasture supplemented with small amounts of grain and forages. Feed additives such as ionophores (monesin and lasalocid) can be used to help improve the heifers' dietary energy efficiency. Feeding ionophores will enhance heifer growth and increase their feed utilization. Fresh water must be continually available at all stages of the dairy heifer's life.


Heifers should be ready to breed at 13 to 15 months so they are able to calve around 24 months. The keys to a successful breeding program are proper nutrition, a preventive health program, routine heat detection, and timely insemination. Keeping accurate heat date and breeding records is an important aspect of a heifer-breeding program.

Health Program

The first few months of a calf's life are critical for producing a healthy animal. Digestive and respiratory diseases that occur in young calves often result from overcrowding, poor ventilation, improper nutrition, inadequate sanitation, and cold, wet weather. Therefore, the best kind of health program is a preventive one and starts with a good housing and feeding program.

A good management practice for farmers is to dehorn calves (and remove extra teats if necessary) at a young age. This is less stressful on the heifers if done at an early age. In addition, vaccinate heifers at 4 to 8 months of age and before breeding.

Parasites are a major potential health problem. A routine deworming program for young calves should start at weaning and continue until 8 months of age. Heifers should be dewormed 3 and 6 weeks after they are put on pasture and in the fall after confinement. Coccidiosis can cause diarrhea in calves beginning at 3 weeks of age. Incorporating a prevention product, such as coccidiostat or ionophore, can help control coccidiosis. Calves also should be treated for external parasites such as flies, mange mites, and lice.

Keep accurate vaccination and health records to help reduce death loss and ensure healthy heifers. Ear tags, neck chains, or freeze brands are good identification methods that help maintain accurate records. Consult with a veterinarian to plan an effective preventive health program.


Biosecurity is a set of production management practices that reduce or prevent the introduction of diseases onto a farm. Every person who is involved with the farm (production management, labor, service providers, and especially breeder and veterinarian services) has a role in minimizing the introduction of disease into a herd.

Before animals are brought to the farm, be sure to:

  • Check the history of the herd's health to determine if calves are coming from a reputable source.
  • Implement a reasonable animal-testing program on all heifers that enter your herd.
  • Quarantine and observe any new animals introduced to the farm for 2 to 4 weeks to minimize the spread of the following health concerns: bovine viral disease, salmonella, foot rot, Johne's disease, and hairy warts.

Having a good health program is critical to the success of your dairy farm. Consult with a veterinarian, extension specialist, or other agricultural professional to implement an effective herd health plan for your operation.

Local Regulations

All agricultural operations in Pennsylvania, including small and part-time farming operations, operate under the Pennsylvania Clean Streams Law. A specific part of this law is the Nutrient Management Act. Portions of the Nutrient Management Act, Act 38, may or may not pertain to your operation owing to the number and/or size of animals you have. However, all operations may be a source of surface or groundwater pollution. Because of this possibility, you should contact your local Soil and Water Conservation District to determine what regulations may pertain to your operation.

Risk Management

You may wish to consider several risk-management strategies for your operation. First, you should insure your facilities as well as your animals. This may be accomplished by consulting your insurance agent or broker. Second, you may want to insure your income through a crop insurance program called AGR-Lite. To use AGR-Lite you must have five years of Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Schedule F, forms. If your business structure is either a C or S Corporation, the necessary information can be entered into a Schedule F for crop insurance purposes. You can then contact an agent who sells crop insurance and insure the income of your operation.

For more on agricultural business insurance, please see Agricultural Business Insurance . For more information concerning crop insurance, contact a crop insurance agent or check the Penn State Extension website.

When using any pesticides in your enterprise, remember to follow all label recommendations regarding application rates and Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) requirements. Also remember that any Worker Protection Standards (WPS) apply to the owner as well as the employees.

Sample Budgets

Included in this publication are three annual budgets for dairy heifer replacement production. The first two summarize the receipts, costs, and net returns of conventional confined production for large and small breeds. The third is for a pasture production system. These sample budgets should help ensure that all costs and receipts are included in your calculations. Costs and returns are often difficult to estimate in budget preparation because they are numerous and variable. Therefore, you should think of these budgets as approximations and make appropriate adjustments in the "your estimate" column to reflect your specific production and resource situation. More information on the use of livestock budgets can be found in Enterprise Budget Analysis.

You can make changes to the interactive PDF budget files for this publication by inputting your own prices and quantities in the green outlined cells for any item. The cells outlined in red automatically calculate your revised totals based on the changes you made to the cells outlined in green. You will need to click on and add your own estimated price and quantity information to all of the green outlined cells to complete your customized budget. When you are done, you can print the budget using the green Print Form button at the bottom of the form. You can use the red Clear Form button to clear all the information from your budget when you are finished.

Sample Budget Worksheets

Initial Resource Requirements

(large breeds, confined production)


1/3 acre


30 hours


  • Heifer calf cost: $350 /li>
  • Building: $120-$160
  • Equipment: $200

(large breeds, pasture system)


3/4 acre


30 hours


  • Heifer calf cost: $350
  • Building: $70-$90
  • Equipment: $200

(small breeds, confined production)


1/3 acre


30 hours


  • Heifer calf cost: $350
  • Building: $120-$160
  • Equipment: $200

For More Information


  • Davis, C. L., and Drackley, J. K. The Development, Nutrition, and Management of the Young Calf. Ames: Iowa State Press, 1998.
  • Greaser, G. L, and J. Harper. Enterprise Budget Analysis. University Park, Pa.: Penn State Extension, 1994.
  • Heinrichs, A. J. Feeding the Dairy Heifer. University Park, Pa.: Penn State Extension, 1991.
  • Heinrichs, A. J. Feeding the Newborn Dairy Calf. University Park, Pa.: Penn State Extension, 2003.
  • Heinrichs, A. J., and L. A. Swartz. Management of Dairy Heifers. University Park, Pa.: Penn State Extension, 1991.
  • Heinrichs, A. J., and B. Lammers. Monitoring Dairy Heifer Growth. University Park, Pa.: Penn State Extension, 2008.
  • Pond, W. G., Church, D. C., and Pond, K. R. Basic Animal Nutrition and Feeding. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, 2004.
  • 1998-2000 Professional Dairy Heifer Growers Northeast Regional Conference Proceedings. Contact Jud Heinrichs, (814) 863-3916.


Dairy Herd Management
Food 360°
10901 West 84th Terrace
Lenexa, KS 66214

3 West Main Street
Brownstown, PA 17508

The Miller Publishing Company
12400 Whitewater Drive, Suite 160
Minnetonka, MN 55343

Hoard's Dairyman
P.O. Box 801
Fort Atkinson, WI 53538

Lancaster Farming
1 East Main Street
P.O. Box 609
Ephrata, PA 17522

Pennsylvania Country Folks
350 Zenith Road
Nescopeck, PA 18635


American Guernsey Association
7614 Slate Ridge Boulevard
Reynoldsburg, OH 43068

American Jersey Cattle Club
6486 East Main Street
Reynoldsburg, OH 43068

American Milking Shorthorn Society
800 Pleasant Street
Beloit, WI 53511

Ayrshire Breeders Association
1224 Alton Darby Creek Road, Suite B
Columbus, OH 43228

Brown Swiss Association
800 Pleasant Street
Beloit, WI 53511

Holstein Association
P.O. Box 808
1 Holstein Place
Brattleboro, VT 05301

Red and White Dairy Cattle Association
3088 Ogden Avenue
Clinton, WI 53525

Web Sites


    Prepared by Arlyn J. Heinrichs, professor of dairy and animal science; Virginia A. Ishler, program assistant in dairy and animal science; Lynn F. Kime, senior extension associate in agricultural economics; and Jayson K. Harper, professor of agricultural economics.

    This publication was developed by the Small-scale and Part-time Farming Project at Penn State with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Extension Service.