Heifer Nutrition


5 min read

Nutritional requirements Everyday feed for heifers Crops or supplements Compensatory growth

Feeding and nutrition play a critical role in a young heifer's development. A well-fed heifer grows more, produces more milk, and competes better with mature cows. Your heifer's diet needs sufficient energy and protein for optimal growth. A balance of minerals and water availability is also vital. Growth rates can guide you on whether you're meeting your heifer's nutritional requirements. Ryegrass pastures can fully satisfy a heifer's dietary needs. Monitor your heifer's weight gain to ensure you're meeting her nutritional needs and providing enough minerals and water. Good pre-puberty nutrition influences skeletal growth. Adequate energy and protein intake support both growth and maintenance. When it comes to supplements, use them wisely as over-reliance can be uneconomical and risky.

Feeding and nutrition is vital for the growth of young heifers. Well-grown heifers will produce more milk, compete better with mature cows and survive longer in the herd.

  • Heifers are most feed efficient when they are young (small); try to capitalise on early growth efficiency.
  • Nutrition pre-puberty (before 50% mature liveweight) influences skeletal growth.
  • Growth rates give the best indication of whether heifers’ nutritional requirements are being met.
  • Heifer diets need enough energy (10.5 MJ ME/kg DM or higher) and protein to achieve target growth rates. Often pasture alone will be sufficient.
  • Heifers require adequate mineral levels and available water.

Nutritional requirements of heifers

Well managed ryegrass pastures are a complete diet for heifers at all stages of life, including leafy kikuyu pastures. Heifers should be fed diets greater than 10.5MJ ME per kg DM and the appropriate protein to ensure that they meet liveweight targets.

Heifer liveweight gain is the best indication of meeting nutritional requirements as well as adequate minerals and water provision. Farmers should focus on meeting key weight for age liveweight targets for heifers rather than a particular pattern of weight gain.

Nutrition pre-puberty (before 50% mature liveweight) is where skeletal growth is influenced, if R2 heifers are significantly shorter than mature cows pre-calving it will be due to feed management pre-puberty.

Energy and protein required (eaten) for maintenance and growth in heifer diets.

Liveweight Maintenance Growth per 1 kg Protein
Kg MJ ME/day MJ ME/day %
100 19 17 17
150 26 24 17
200 32 28 17
250 37 29 15
300 42 31 15
350 47 39 14
400 51 40 14
450 55 40 14
500 62 40 14
550 69 40 14

*Energy does not account for energy required for pregnancy

The required protein percentage of the diet declines as the heifer gets heavier because the relative weight gain slows down.  For example, a heifer would double her liveweight in her first three months of life, but typically it takes another nine months before she doubles her weight again.

Nutritional stages

  • Weaning to nine months of age. Focus on lean growth (muscle and skeletal) and not overly fat heifers, achieving 30% mature liveweight at six months. Lean growth results in increased frame size while maintaining a consistent body condition score. Improved skeletal development results in taller heifers that experience fewer calving difficulties. Rumen capacity can limit at this age so high energy and high protein diets are critical. Try to capitalise on energy efficiency when heifers are young.
  • From nine months to mating at 15 months of age. Focus on heifers achieving puberty (43-47% mature liveweight) one to two months pre-mating and continued growth to mating (60% mature liveweight at 15 months) to improve conception rates.
  • 15 months of age to 24 months. Liveweight should be gained over this year targeting 90% of mature liveweight at 22 months and 5.5 body condition score pre-calving. Cow condition reflects how well an animal has been fed for the last 6-8 weeks where body weight relative to liveweight targets is how well the heifer has been fed over her life.

Everyday feed requirements for heifers

The below table shows the required daily feed intake

Start weight DM intake for different rates of Lwt gain (kg/hd/day)
0.4 0.6 0.8 1.0
100 kg 2.4 2.8 3.2 3.6
150 kg 3.0 3.4 3.9 4.4
200 kg 3.7 4.2 4.7 5.2
250 kg 4.3 4.8 5.4 5.9
300 kg 4.9 5.5 6.1 6.8
350 kg 5.5 6.2 6.9 7.6
400 kg 6.0 6.8 7.5 8.3
450 kg 7.0 7.5 8.3 9.2
500 kg 7.1 8.0 8.9 9.7

*This table is for feed eaten, feed offered needs to account for wastage.

*This table does not include walking/ hard hill/ unfavourable weather and is based on feed quality of 11MJME/kg. 

Add/subtract  10% per MJME for diets below/above. Add additional 5% for rolling to steep land.

*Pregnancy requirements: Requirements for different stages of pregnancy based on calf born at a weight of 30 kg. 1705 total MJME for pregnancy (assumes 11 MJME).

Weeks before calving -12 -8 -6 -4 -2 0 (due date)
KgDM/cow/day 0.6 1.0 1.4 1.7 2.3 3.1

Water requirements

The below table shows the average required daily water intake of heifers


Bodyweight (kg) Litres per day
45 3.5
90 11
180 19
270 26
360 32
455 38

Mineral requirements

Mineral requirements of growing young stock will vary by farm and region. Look at soil types, pasture fertiliser history, and types of crops or supplements being fed. Speak to your vet about developing a mineral supplementation plan.

Heifers and crops or supplements

Supplementing pasture may be required to maintain heifer growth. If pasture is limited, it is cost effective to feed heifers crops and supplements. Supplements for pasture diets should contain at least 11 MJ ME/kg dry matter and crude protein suitable to meet the animal’s nutritional stage.

Animals may gain slightly more weight from supplement feeding, but the weight gain is rarely economical.  Supplementation may be justified if heifers are behind liveweight targets and need to achieve weight for age targets before the end of a contract. Short term supplement feeding can also be beneficial if it helps increase pasture growth rates to fill feed shortfalls and reduce the amount of supplement needed overall.

You may see an increase in heifer liveweight gain from crops or supplements, this is a result of increased feed supply, not an increase in feed quality or crude protein content.

Risks of crops and supplements

Feeding crops and supplements will reduce animal health risks associated with pasture (such as ryegrass staggers) but have risks and limitations of their own.

Crops and supplements typically require rumen transition and may have issues with palatability, nutritional composition, mineral composition, differences in feed management, suitability to the wider system, or low yields. Take these aspects into consideration when choosing a crop or supplement to feed.

Choosing and feeding crops and supplements

Nutritional considerations of crops and supplements

  • Avoid sudden changes in diet, rumen transition where required (specific to feed type)
  • Adequate fibre in the diet is critical for rumen function, at least 10% of the diet must be a fibre source.
  • Supplements are often higher dry matter than pasture so make sure sufficient water is available, water limitations will depress heifer growth rates and is a risk to animal welfare.

Compensatory growth

It is dangerous to rely on compensatory growth as it varies for each animal. Compensatory growth rarely makes up the difference for mobs to meet target weights and fails to close liveweight gaps. Using supplements and crops when pasture is limited increases the chances of heifers reaching target weight.

Last updated: Sep 2023
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