Metabolic and reproductive characteristics of replacement beef heifers subjected to an early-weaning regimen involving high-concentrate feeding.
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In an effort to better understand the consequences of early weaning (EW) for replacement beef heifers, a two-phase experiment was conducted investigating the impact on metabolic function and documenting reproductive characteristics. In phase 1, AngusSimmental heifers (n=35) were stratified by BW and sire, and randomly assigned to either a normal weaning (NW, n=18) or EW (n=17) treatment. EW heifers were weaned at 1073 days of age and provided access to a concentrate-based ration ad libitum with limit-fed mixed grass hay. NW heifers remained with their dams until 2323 days of age, at which point heifers from both treatments were comingled and grazed on mixed summer pasture. Following NW, weekly blood samples were collected from all heifers for progesterone analyses used to determine the onset of puberty. Pelvic and ovarian size was measured before breeding. All heifers were subjected to an estrous synchronization protocol with timed artificial insemination (AI) at 4374 days of age. During phase 2 of the experiment, a subset of pregnant heifers (n=16) were divided into two replicates and subjected to a glucose tolerance test, epinephrine challenge and progesterone clearance analysis. Neither age nor BW at puberty differed between EW and NW heifers. Likewise, no differences in pelvic area or ovarian size were observed. Thus, it appears that the reproductive maturity of EW and NW heifers was similar. Heifers studied during phase 2 of the experiment were restricted to those that had become pregnant to their first AI. Within this cohort, EW heifers tended to have lower overall circulating progesterone concentrations than those that were NW (P=0.14). Aspects of glucose and insulin dynamics were also altered, as EW heifers tended to have lower baseline glucose concentrations (P=0.10) despite similar baseline insulin concentrations. Compared with NW heifers, EW heifers had lower insulin area under the curve (P<0.05), which was partly the result of a tendency for lower peak insulin concentrations (P=0.11). Results of the glucose tolerance test indicate that a lesser insulin response was necessary to properly clear the glucose in the EW heifers, suggesting enhanced insulin sensitivity. Collectively, these results indicate that EW is not detrimental for the growth or reproductive development of replacement beef heifers, although some differences in glucose and insulin dynamics persist into adulthood.