Developing a champion show heifer

For many youth and adults alike, spring and summer mean an occasional break from the daily routine to head to cattle shows and exhibit their best animals. It takes a well-grown, well-balanced heifer with a deep, open rib to stand near the top at most heifer shows. While pedigrees and genetics matter, most heifers aren’t just born to be champions. They are developed through months of hard work.  
While this column is specific to raising and feeding show animals, some of the same principles apply to all heifers.

Success starts at birth
Sound management practices need to be implemented on day No. 1 to allow the animal to achieve its genetic potential. Maternity pens need to be clean and dry. One gallon of high-quality colostrum should be given as soon as possible after birth. Navels should be dipped with 7% tincture iodine.  
Accelerated milk or milk-replacer programs work well to maximize growth during the first few months of age. A high-quality starter is offered free choice until 3 months of age. No hay is typically fed during this starter period as it will impede starter intake and rumen development. The volatile fatty acids produced from consuming calf starter are essential to rumen papillae development for maximum growth and performance. Clean, fresh water should be offered by 5 days of age to maximize starter digestion and intake.  

Continue development after weaning
The goal in the post-weaning period is to continue building bone and lean muscle mass. Some equate this to training a well-conditioned athlete. Grain needs should be monitored based on body condition and individual heifer metabolism. To meet amino acid requirements, top dress with high-quality protein sources, which can include soybean meal, canola meal, blood meal and a variety of bypass soybean-based products.  
In most cases, little or no silage will be fed to show heifers as it can limit rib development. Lots of hay is the key to the expression of the show heifer’s deep, open rib.   The type of hay is as important as the ingredients in the grain mix. Hay must be clean and free of mold. Grass hay typically works best, although some mixtures with alfalfa may benefit younger heifers. Keep in mind, high-quality grass can be highly digestible and increase body condition.
Feeding straw as a primary forage source can work for weight loss situations. It is important to ensure proper mineral and vitamin fortification through this period. The best solution is to prevent the animal from getting too heavy by monitoring body condition and watching carbohydrate intakes and forage quality.  

Management considerations
Keep all heifers clean and dry. Proper ventilation is critical throughout all stages of life. Fans to move air can yield better hair quality, but be mindful of drafts on younger animals. Keep pen group sizes small with less competition. Keeping heifers of similar age together will also help. Provide clean, accessible water continuously.
Throughout the life of the calf and heifer, separating stress events, such as pen moves, weaning, vaccinations and dehorning, will prevent setbacks in performance. Work with a veterinarian to develop a sound vaccination program for benefits at home as well as potential exposures at the shows.
Exercise is critical for yearling heifers to develop lean muscle. It is also important for blood flow supplying nutrients to cells. Grass pastures are typically not ideal. If this is the only option, it is important to keep grass mowed short, and limit the amount of time a heifer can eat grass each day. Dirt lots offer an ideal exercise area with little chance to gain weight from grass intake.  

It is time to get started
It’s not too early to pick out those show heifers and start to develop them to their genetic potential. Start clipping the long winter hair coats in March or April. For many, this has already happened as there have been a few days above 60 degrees. In season, keep body hair short and work with topline hair often. Wash heifers frequently to improve hair quality and increase the animal’s comfort level. Soap should only be used a couple times per week, and make sure it is completely rinsed out each time.    
No silver bullets will create the perfect show heifer. It takes sound management and a keen eye to customize the best feeding strategy for each heifer. While this will take some time and effort, it may result in a purple ribbon hanging above that heifer.   
    Barry Visser is a nutritionist for Vita Plus.


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