Factors affecting survival to first and second calving and successful completion of a > 168-day first lactation were assessed in 3075 purebred and crossbred dairy heifer calves. Growth, disease, frequency, reproduction, calving, udder and lactation traits were examined in females of a breeding project conducted jointly at five research stations (herds) of Agriculture Canada. Losses included mortalities and non-discretionary culling. About 0·23 of potential heifers were culled or died before first calving, and 0·25 of those calving once did not calve a second time. Results from retrospective selection index and stepwise linear logistic analyses showed that predictability of culling prior to 308 days post partum was poor. With few exceptions, survival rates from birth to 82 weeks varied among herds (P < 0·001) and among lines (P < 0·05). Heterosis for the probability of completing a lactation and of survival to second calving was significant (P < 0·05) and positive (0·05 to 0·09). Heavier heifers were more likely to survive to first calving. Sire's estimated breeding values (SEBV) for milk yield and fat, protein and lactose concentration were not important in predicting survival to first calving. SEBV lactose was negatively associated with survival after first calving as predicted from data available at most preceding stages of life. An age greater than 82 weeks at last insemination was associated with a lower probability of survival to first and second calving (P < 0·001). Cows which conceived for a second gestation and subsequently aborted had a lower probability of survival to second calving than cows which did not abort (0·57 v. 0·76, P < 0·01). The only continuous traits with large effects on survival or the probability of completing a first lactation were days to last insemination (a measure of fertility) and milk yield. It was concluded that (1) there is considerable scope for improved management to increase survival in early life by prevention of calfhood diseases; (2) losses in early life do not bias sire evaluation on first lactation records; (3) improved reproductive success would greatly enhance overall survival rates; and (4) crossbreeding could have a large impact on overall herd profitability through increased survival.