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8 Oct 2021

The way we feed our heifers matters

A scientific trial reveals important differences in how breeds respond to different feed levels. VikingReds have a higher capability to grow on feed with less energy, which is very valuable on grazing systems. 

The Danish Cattle Research Center (DKC) led research to compare possible differences in weight, growth, feed intake and feed efficiency between Holstein (HOL) and VikingRed (VR) heifers, as well as heifers from crosses under Danish conditions.

It is known from practice that Holstein heifers and VikingRed heifers respond differently when assigned the same feed ration. Experiments from the USA have also shown that crossbreeding cows (KRY) have a better feed efficiency than HOL cows.

In the trial, each breed group was divided into two sub-groups, where one half is assigned a standard feed ration (STD) optimized in relation to HOL heifers and the other group is assigned a low energy feed ration (LAV), which is more filling and thus contains less energy.


Results show differences in energy concentration

The growth curves in Figure (bottom) show an interesting picture of how the difference in the energy concentration of the feed ration over the period has affected the growth of the heifers for the three animal groups.

For HOL, it is seen that the heifers on the low energy ration (LAV) grow less compared to the heifers that are assigned the STD ration. The difference between the groups is significant from the age of eight months up to 12 months.

For VR (RDM), no difference is seen in the weight curves, which are entirely similar across the two feed mixtures.

In the meantime, the crosses between the two breeds show weight curves where there is some difference between the two feed mixtures, but the difference is not significant. Furthermore, the crosses were closer to VR than HOL, showing crosses with VR have a positive crossbreeding effect on feed intake.

Only a few differences were observed in the body condition score (BCS), where VR (RDM) and crosses (KRY) had higher BCS than HOL on the LAV ration, while the BSC was similar across animals with the STD ration.

“The VikingRed’s capability to grow on less energy is very valuable in grazing systems where the amount of feed from the grass can vary between seasons. VikingRed and crosses are therefore very suitable for grazing production systems like in Australia”, says Jakob Lykke Voergaard, Senior Breeding Manager VikingRed.  

VikingHolstein heifer

Dry matter intake matters

The differences in weight and body score may be related to the fact that HOL and KRY have lower feed intake (dry matter intake) on the LAV ration than on the STD ration. VR (RDM) absorbs the same amount of dry matter across rations.

The results therefore indicate that there are differences in the feeding capacity of the breeds. Further analysis will provide more information on whether the difference in growth is due to different feed efficiency or different allocation of resources between the breeds.

If two animals weigh the same, there will be a big difference in the energy used to store muscle versus the energy needed to store fat.

The results meet the expectations

Overall, the results correspond to the expectations that the researchers had before the start of the experiment. There appear to be differences in how breeds respond to different feed levels.

This period of the heifers' lives is generally not subject to much study and this project therefore fills a gap in the existing knowledge, which is in demand both in Denmark and abroad.

VikingRed heifer

Facts of the study


  • The trial was financed by the Milk Tax Fund and was realized in cooperation with SEGES.
  • 62 heifer calves were part of the research.
  • The heifers were compared at the Aarhus University experimental campus in Foulum, Denmark.
  • The trial took place from February 2020 to September 2020.


Figure: Here the growth curves for the different breed groups are divided into the two feed sub-groups. Marked in red, the STD ration is optimized for HOL, and the LAV ration is marked in blue.

The figure * indicates where there are significant differences (p <0.05) between the feed groups within the breed.

VR was named as RDM in the trial because it had Danish-born animals.

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