Dystocia in beef heifers: A review of genetic and nutritional influences

Dystocia in beef heifers: A review of genetic and nutritional influences
Peer reviewed


Breeding beef heifers for the first time at 15 months of age has potential to increase the efficiency of the beef breeding-cow herd. An increased incidence of dystocia in heifers calving at 2 years of age, compared to mature cows, is a major reason many farmers in New Zealand have not adopted the practice. The predominant type of dystocia affecting 2-year-old heifers is feto-maternal disproportion, a condition in which the fetus is too large relative to the size of the heifer’s pelvis. Reducing birthweight of the calf is a means of reducing the incidence of dystocia. Birthweight and length of gestation are determined by genotype of the calf, maternal genetic effects and environmental effects.
Bulls with low estimated breeding values for birthweight have been selected for mating heifers; however, the positive genetic correlation between birthweight and mature weight meant that the progeny of these bulls tended to be lighter at finishing, making them less desirable in the beef industry. The genotype of the dam also plays a role in determining the risk of dystocia; the maternal ability of the dam to nurture the fetus influences birthweight, and the dam’s genetic potential for growth influences the size of her pelvic area. Heavy heifers tend to produce high birthweight calves, counteracting the reduction in the incidence of dystocia resulting from the larger pelvis in larger heifers.
Manipulating feeding level during pregnancy offers an alternative method for manipulating the birthweight of calves. Little is known about the effects of nutrition in early gestation on placental development or birthweight of calves. No differences in the birthweight of calves have been observed in response to variation in feeding in mid-pregnancy, and variable responses in birthweight and the incidence of dystocia to feeding in the third trimester of pregnancy have been reported. Differences in birthweight have not always resulted in differences in the incidence of dystocia, primarily due to differences in liveweight of the heifer also induced by feeding regimens. Variability in the incidence of dystocia in response to feeding level in the third trimester of pregnancy makes it difficult to make recommendations for the feeding of heifers at this stage of gestation. More research is needed into the effects of nutrition in early gestation on fetal and placental development in cattle.
KEY WORDS: Birthweight, dystocia, beef cattle, heifer, nutrition, genetics, pregnancy

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