Dairy replacement heifer management

Carole Curtis
A pen full of healthy heifers holds the promise of good fortune in a dairy's future.

FORT ATKINSON - Savvy dairy farmers understand that careful young stock management will help them capture the investments they make in genetic progress.

The trick to fully realizing this potential is to successfully deal with the challenges involved, Dr. Michael Overton, Elanco Knowledge Solutions, pointed out during the June "Hoard's Dairyman" webinar, "Opportunities and Challenges in Dairy Replacement Heifer Raising."

There are three big drivers in achieving a more efficient and profitable earlier age at first calving, Overton said. One is nutritional management, which involves efficient and high rate of gain, achievement of puberty and adequate frame at an earlier age with reduced variation.

Another is health management, covering proper housing, vaccinations, therapeutics and culling.

The third is reproductive management.

"You can do the first two right and blow it on number three," Overton observed. "In my opinion, each area must be managed effectively to achieve a high potential heifer in a cost effective way."

Cost wise

It takes more money to raise a heifer than many dairy farmers realize, Overton said.
Many factors impact heifer raising costs, including feed, labor, mortality, the value of the wet calf and her age at first service. Research shows the current average total investment, given a wet calf value of $150 and interest of 7 percent, is about $2,200.

Research on intensive feeding diets versus conventional feeding has shown that costs are higher on the intensive feeding method, but growing time is cut by 63 days so, overall, calves could be raised for $89 less with the intensive method.

"I think intensive is a pretty cost-effective approach," Overton said.

Monitoring is vital

Looking at raising a calf from birth to calving, he observed that gestation is a fixed amount of time.

"If we want to impact how fast this wheel of life is turning, we can focus on two major areas: from birth to entry into the breeding period, and the reproductive portion," Overton said.

He advises monitoring growth, morbidity, mortality and reproduction, and recording key measures.

For hutch calves, reasonable targets are 1.6 - 1.8 ADG and colostrum status of >90 percent with total protein >5.0 g/dl.

Heifers need to be weighed and measured. They can be compared more effectively if their actual weight is known at particular points, Overton explained.

He likes to have the birth weight, the weaning weight and another weight between three and six months to see how to make dietary adjustments.

Deaths should be less than 3 - 4 percent by 63 days old, and the incidence of scours and pneumonia should be closely monitored. The reported incidences vary widely among farms, ranging from 4 - 50+ percent in the first 60 days for pneumonia and 1-59 percent for scours.

"There is tremendous amount of variation across herds," Overton pointed out.

Dairy producers also need to set up breeding pens to appropriately capture entry.
For targets, Overton advised aiming for <2 percent mortality rates. At 12 months, the heifer should weight 800 - 825 pounds and stand at least 49 inches high at her withers.

Breeding in good time

At breeding time, a heifer should be at least 50 inches at the withers and weigh between 825 - 850 lbs.

Her age at first conception should be 13 - 15 months. Over 90 percent of the heifers should be in the AI pen within 14 days of the farm's targeted age for first service, and over 90 percent should be bred within 21 days of the voluntary waiting period (VWP).

Monitor the pregnancy rate based on when the heifers enter the breeding pan, Overton advised.

"Consistency of moving in is important - know what percentage of heifers moved to AI pen within 14 days of VWP," he said. "Tighten it up and reduce variation in the age of first service."

In his view, a heifer should be culled after three to four unsuccessful services.

The sweet spot

Considering total lifetime profitability, Overton believes the optimum age of first calving for a Holstein is 22 - 23 months.  

"Research shows us, time and time again; that that's the sweet spot for Holsteins," he said.

While later calving might gain a little more milk, he noted, it also means reduced repro performance and a higher culling risk. The added milk production is not cost effective.