Heifers being prepared for breeding don't have to eat like pigs, stuffing themselves at all-you-can-eat feed bunks with unlimited refills, according to scientists at a Montana State University experiment station.

Researchers at the Fort Keogh Livestock and Range Research Laboratory at Miles City conducted a two-year study that showed heifers can safely eat 20 percent less during the seven months between weaning and breeding.

They won't suffer from reduced rations, and producers could save $21 per animal.

Industry-wide savings would be significant — especially in drought areas — if producers adopted the practice.

"With the cost of fuel and the cost of production increasing, more and more people are open to more ideas. This is one tool producers can put in their toolbox," said Richard Waterman, research animal scientist who headed the study.

Waterman and five Fort Keogh colleagues recently published their findings in the British Journal of Nutrition, one of the premier journals devoted to animal nutrition.

The researchers conducted their study with 32 heifers born to mothers that were fed harvested feed from the middle to end of their pregnancies.

Each heifer was half Red Angus, a quarter Charolais and a quarter Tarentais. All the animals belonged to the Fort Keogh beef herd.

The scientists divided the heifers into two groups and fed them in confinement during the development period between weaning and breeding, Waterman said.

Young heifers are weaned at seven months and bred for the first time when they're 14 to 16 months old.

Animals in one group for the study ate all they wanted. Their feed bunks were never empty. Animals in the other group ate 80 percent as much feed as heifers of a common weight.

The researchers found that heifers with unlimited feed grew faster than the calves on reduced rations, but the heifers that ate less used their feed more efficiently. It took less feed for them to gain a pound, Waterman said.

MSU Extension Beef Specialist John Paterson, a professor in MSU's Department of Animal and Range Sciences, said producers have traditionally thought that heifers needed to reach 65 percent of their full body size by the time they were bred for the first time, but the study disputes that. It shaved the percentage to about 55 percent, meaning that heifers could be lighter at breeding.