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How long does it take for a dairy cow to repay what it cost to raise her and why do beef breed calves gain weight far more rapidly than dairy calves do, Dick Wallace asked attendees at the Raising Quality Heifers program sponsored by the Extension Service offices in east central Wisconsin.

Wallace, who is a senior veterinarian for dairy cattle and equine technical services with Zoetis and the former dairy herd manager at the University of Illinois, said the answer to the first question is that it happens — depending on the current milk prices — at about the time that the cow has produced 30,000 pounds of milk.

Basic raising costs

Whether home or custom raised, the minimum cost of raising a heifer is $1,400 to $1,600, not including her $200 or more value as a calf, Wallace said. Daily costs per head are close to $3.25 from birth to 120 days and $2.15 from 121 days until she is a springer.

If the open market cost of a springer is only $1,200 to $1,500, dairy farmers might wonder if purchasing rather than raising them is a better choice. He said the dollar differences have to be viewed in a context of the quality of purchased animals and bio-security concerns.

Within the life cycle of dairy heifer, Wallace likes numbers such as 70 days in the calf barn; a cost of 77 cents per pound of gain from weaning to breeding; 395 days of age and 850 pounds at breeding; an average of no more than 42 days to pregnancy; and a calving age at 23.5 months.

Early life support

Achieving those criteria comfortably can be greatly enhanced if dairy calves were fed more milk or milk replacer in order to boost their preweaning average daily weight gain, Wallace promised. He believes that far too many dairy calves are being short-changed on that point.

Drawing a comparison with beef calves, which typically weigh 70 to 75 pounds at birth and reach 600 pounds when they're 6 months old, Wallace wonders why dairy calves which weigh 85 to 100 pounds at birth most often weigh only 350 to 400 pounds when they're 6 months old.

'Underfeeding is the problem,' he said.

That great difference occurs because of the common practice of feeding dairy calves only 1 gallon of milk per day (the equivalent of 1 pound of dry matter based on 20 percent fat and 20 percent protein measured as dry matter), while beef calves enjoy up to 3 gallons of milk from their dam or the equivalent of more than 3 pounds of dry matter per day, Wallace explained.

Research findings

Wallace cited 10 research projects from 1994 to 2011 that found first lactation milk production increases averaging 1,550 pounds (2,163 and 3,092 pounds in two of the studies) by the heifers in the group that achieved an extra 1 pound in weight gain per day before weaning compared to those in the study control group.

Even with a more modest daily weight gain increase of 0.25 pound before weaning, Wallace calculated a 388 pound milk increase in the first lactation worth about $60 at today's milk prices. Based on that, he suggested that an extra $1 or more could be spent per day in boosting the amount of milk or milk replacer fed to a calf during her first 56 days of life.

Feeding practices aside, an 0.25 pound per day of daily gain can easily be squandered with the outbreak of diseases such as scours, pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses that can often be traced to subpar housing and sanitary problems, Wallace warned. Damage to the lungs is not repairable and will reduce a cow's productive capacity.

Colostrum as vaccination

Instead of trying to eliminate those problems with vaccinations, Wallace urges dairy farmers to realize that colostrum is a readily available natural antidote to a variety of calf diseases. Rather than skimping with a feeding a calf one gallon of milk per day, increase that by two quarts, he advised.

With healthy and well-grown heifers, Wallace advocates a prostaglandin protocol in order to get them pregnant before they reach the age of 15 months. The approximate $2 cost of a dose of prostaglandin is less than the $2.50 daily cost of feed alone for large heifers which have not yet calved.

Wallace recounted how a targeted breeding approach that he introduced during his final years at the University of Illinois brought achievements such as conception rates of 53 to 63 percent on the first artificial insemination, tightening the calving window and reducing the average age of calving from 26 months to very close to 24 months.

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