With snow filling road ditches across the state this past month, preparing for calving season just got more difficult. Hopefully the barns are soon to be ready and you’re finding ways to stay warm between calf checks if you’ve started calving already. While calving season is undoubtedly a super busy time, it’s also important during this time to think ahead to spring and pay attention to first-calf heifer pairs so they remain healthy and are ready to breed back come spring.

First-Calf Heifer Considerations

Hopefully, first-calf heifers are the first females to start calving in the ranch. Breeding programs set up this way have advantages over calving all cows at once. First off, once calving season officially starts you are committed to checking heifers every 3 – 5 hours, as they usually require more attention than mature cows (calving difficulty, problems pairing-up, nursing, etc.). Thus, making them a priority at the beginning of the season will hopefully result in an overall more successful calving season.

Calving first-calf heifers before mature cows also allows her more time to recover from pregnancy/calving and resume fertile estrous cycles before breeding season. Traditionally, we need to rebreed cows within 80 days postpartum in order to maintain a 365 day calving interval. Breeding heifers to calve before mature cows then allows them closer to 100 days to resume estrous cycles, and sets them up with better chances of rebreeding with their second calf early in the breeding season.

Keeping Records

Keeping track of records before, during and after calving is important to compare first-calf heifer’s performance throughout the year. Using these records throughout the year can be helpful in making sure she is going down the right path to successfully join the cowherd. Make note to evaluate pre/post calving health, calving performance, and nutrition.


  • Reduce Contaminants. Clean pens frequently or utilize the Sandhills Calving System to maintain a clean environment in and out of the barn.
  • Post-Calving. Monitor first-calf heifers for proper cleaning and passing of the placenta within 12 hours post-calving. Retained placentas, uterine prolapses, uterine infections or lacerations may cause her discomfort and can also lead to breeding problems down the road.

Calving Performance

  • Calving difficulty. How did she perform through her first calving? Did she have any difficulty? If first-calf heifers do experience dystocia, a calving ease score from 1-5 (American Hereford Association) can be documented in the calving book. Heifers showing more signs of calving difficulty (scores 3 – 5) may need to be culled or flagged for extra attention next calving season.


  • Body Condition Score (BCS). First-calf heifers need to be at a BCS of 6 by calving and 85% of mature body weight which will set her up with adequate nutrients for her continued growth, while also allowing her to meet needs of lactation and resumption of estrous cycles prior to breeding.
    • Too Fat: Heifers with BCS greater than 6 may have impaired milk production and increased incidence of dystocia, due to extra fat deposition in the udder and around the pelvis, respectively.
    • Too Thin: If heifers are too thin, extra energy will need to be supplemented in order for her to meet nutrient demands for lactation, growth, and maintenance. Thin heifers will likely have a longer postpartum interval and may lead to devastating profit losses if they get culled due to late or failure to breed back within the desired calving interval.

The Bottom Line

Frequent observation of first-calf heifers and good recordkeeping around calving will give producers insight into which heifers are going to breed back and others that might need some extra TLC. It is estimated that 10 -15% of first-calf heifers experience calving difficulties which will then likely negatively affect the postpartum interval and next season pregnancy rates if nothing is done to help her get back on track after calving. Remember that these heifers are the newest assets of the ranch and it’s important to keep them healthy through their first calving in order to give them the best chance of breeding back and entering into the mature cow herd.

Source: Taylor Grussing, SDSU Extension Cow/Calf Field Specialist