Feeding To Win

Published on Tue, 07/19/2016 - 1:45pm

By Nick Uglow

There she is!” you think to yourself. “She” is that special heifer born the first week of September, who happens to be a couple inches taller than the older August heifers rooming in the same place as her. The daughter of the giant brood cow is easily spotted when pushing up feed to the headlocks. This heifer would be the perfect candidate to take to the county fair for this year’s 4-H project.
But how do you help her reach her genetic potential while keeping adequate condition for this year’s judge to admire her?
The key part of show heifer care comes down to management. In this first of two articles, I’ll focus on the nutrition considerations for show calves. You’ll see the key tasks in managing show heifers are on the same list as managing commercial heifers. Part 2 will discuss the extra steps to help the heifer reach maximum genetic potential.
Start at birth
When show animals are sourced from a home farm, growth starts in the maternity pen. It is necessary for calves to be born in a clean maternity pen with bedding free of any fecal matter or moisture. Four quarts of quality colostrum, measured with a Brix meter, should be administered within two hours of birth, along with dipping the calf’s navel with 7-percent tincture iodine.
After processing the calf, she should go into a clean and dry environment with adequate ventilation and fed a quality liquid diet consisting of either a high-quality protein milk replacer or pasteurized milk. In addition to a high-protein calf starter, with 22-percent protein, starting at day three, offering clean and fresh water will help with rumen development.
Hold off on offering hay to any calf until it is two to three months of age. Hay impedes calf starter intake. The volatile fatty acids produced from consuming calf starter are the drivers of rumen papillae development – the key building blocks to reach your optimal growth goal.
Separating stress events in the calf’s life, such as weaning, dehorning and vaccinating, usually prevents a calf from running off track. In addition to the time between stress events, remember to work with a veterinarian to develop a sound vaccination protocol.

The athlete diet

Following the transition phase, the calf should be treated like an athlete to develop lean muscle tissue. All feed changes should be done in a gradual order and you can start offering the calf grass hay in small amounts free-choice over time. You can also gradually transition off the high-protein calf starter and onto a lower-protein calf grower. At this point, the calf is still young enough to efficiently convert high-quality carbohydrates into growth.
At five to six months of age, the calf becomes less efficient at converting energy feeds, such as corn and oats, to growth. Therefore, the amount of energy feeds should be limited and more high-quality protein sources should be offered to ensure maximum skeletal growth and prevention of over-conditioning.
To strategically feed show heifers, it is a good idea to first base energy feeding on the animal’s body condition. Secondly, it is imperative to offer the animal high-quality protein sources, such as soybean meal, expeller soybean meal products, blood meal and canola meal. Adequate vitamin and mineral fortification should be addressed as well.
Monitoring the calf’s manure can dictate how much of the protein sources can be fed. If the heifer’s stool becomes loose, lower the protein amount immediately.


The type of forage fed to show heifers is as important as the grain or protein supplement. Typically, grass and alfalfa hay varieties are fed to future show calves. Types of grass generally utilized in the calf diet include orchardgrass, tall fescue and brome. Haylage and corn silage are strongly discouraged as their particle size is smaller and quality is generally higher. A palatable, high neutral detergent fiber (NDF) value of hay is suggested, as it is best for obtaining optimal body fill. On the contrary, watch early maturity hay as it will add body condition because fiber is still a carbohydrate and will increase energy status.

Other considerations

Following the same management practices as in a commercial setting — keeping calves clean and dry in a facility with proper ventilation, offering clean water, and managing them in a consistent manner — will keep the fair-prospect calf, in any barn, on par with the desired growth.
However, to help these individuals reach their maximum genetic potential as quickly as possible, management practices not normally performed in a commercial setting have to be added to this list.
Additional management practices to consider when taking care of show heifers are:
•Group size:
Maximize animal comfort and bunk space by keeping calves in small groups, preferably two to four animals per group depending on the size of the pen. This will promote less competition at the feedbunk, yet calves will still have the opportunity to socialize. Calves are very social creatures and this need should be fulfilled for optimal health.
•Proper ventilation:
Animals need to breathe clean, fresh air to maximize comfort and growth. Facilities that contain stagnant air can increase respiratory disorders, so it is imperative to use numerous fans to move air in the hot summer time to maintain comfort.
•Clean & fresh water:
Clean waterers drive water intake, resulting in the ideal heifer hay consumption. Maximizing hay intake improves heifer rib structure for a fuller, more desirable appearance.
Keeping calves clean helps them utilize energy for growth versus using energy on keeping them warm and comfortable when they are wet and dirty. In addition, keeping the animals clean helps improve their hair quality and appearance. Body clipping the animal every four weeks and washing it every other day significantly improves hair quality and animal comfort. Most experienced cattle exhibitors apply water to their show heifers at night; this combination of cool weather and cold water drives hair growth.
Exercise is very critical for yearling heifers to develop lean muscle in order to accentuate their dairy features.

When working with show heifers, focus on the basic management practices and take care of them in a consistent manner in small group sizes to produce optimal results. From there, fine-tune the diet by limiting energy and pushing high-quality feed sources while feeding a palatable high NDF grass hay to help maximize growth and reach their genetic potential. While some may rely on luck and superior genetics, with good management and a quality feed program, you can turn that September calf into the champion you knew she had the potential to be.

Nick Uglow is a sales and nutrition consultant at Vita Plus Lake Mills. Uglow grew up on his family’s registered Brown Swiss and Holstein dairy farm in Watertown, Wisconsin. He earned a bachelor’s degree in dairy science and agricultural journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2000. Since then, he has worked as an account executive for an agricultural marketing firm as well as a dairy feed and sales consultant and has experience fitting and caring for dairy cattle for shows and sales. Nick still owns Brown Swiss cattle and works with his parents on the family farm, where he lives with his wife, Buffy, and dog, Melvin.