From birth to breeding: raising healthy replacement heifers

Boehringer Ingelheim
Replacement heifers are an important investment in the future of your dairy herd.

Often ranked as the second-largest production cost on dairy farms, replacement heifers are an important investment in the future of your dairy herd. In fact, replacement animals typically account for 15% to 20% of all milk production costs, depending on management strategies.

“The management of replacement heifers between birth and breeding can greatly impact the longevity and productivity of those animals down the road,” said Curt Vlietstra, DVM, Boehringer Ingelheim. “By implementing strategic protocols, producers can reduce costly setbacks due to respiratory and reproductive challenges on their farm.”

Tricia Badillo, herdsperson at Shadycrest Holsteins in Altura, Minnesota, agrees. “We raise all of our replacement heifers, and our protocols start the day the calf is born.”

To help dairy producers ensure the future of their herd is set up for long-term success, Badillo and Dr. Vlietstra shared some of their heifer development strategies:    

Feed quality colostrum

Calf health starts with good colostrum before anything else. When colostrum is fed, calves receive antibodies from dams to help boost their immunity to potentially harmful diseases. Calves should receive four quarts of colostrum immediately after birth, followed by a second feeding eight hours later.

Serum protein testing can help assess the overall success of the colostrum management system and identify calves that are at higher risk of disease. If more than 10% of calves are experiencing failure of passive transfer, then it is likely that some element of colostrum management may need improvement.

We used to have challenges with calves not passing their serum protein tests,” noted Badillo. “But since we started feeding a second bottle of colostrum, we rarely have that problem anymore.” 

Follow up with proper nutrition

Monitoring feed intake and keeping track of average daily gain can help producers ensure their calves are healthy and on schedule to be bred on time.

“After the calf receives colostrum, we can really start focusing on growth,” continued Badillo. “Adequate nutrition and feed intake both play a key role.”

To encourage grain intake and heifer growth at a young age, Shadycrest starts reducing milk intake once the calf reaches 36 days. “We feed three times a day, and when calves don’t get the middle-of-the-day feeding anymore, they start looking for water and eating starter feed sooner, which in turn has created healthier calves on our operation,” Badillo explained.

Once calves reach 3 to 4 months of age, they are transitioned from a starter feed to a total mixed ration, with a cracked-corn pelleted top-dress. “As heifers transition from pen to pen, we continue to top-dress the feed until they go into our bigger pen of heifers,” she said. “This protocol has encouraged heifers to eat more, and they tend to have a fuller body with a taller frame.”

Maintain a sanitary environment

New calves are young and full of potential, but can be extremely susceptible to diseases like bovine respiratory disease (BRD) and scours, if proper care isn’t taken early on.

“Implementing a solid biosecurity plan can really go a long way in preventing disease on your dairy,” Dr. Vlietstra asserted. Cattle should be housed in a clean, dry, well-ventilated area. Facilities should also have capacity to protect calves from the elements and temperature changes, as a calf’s immune system can become compromised when exposed to dramatic weather fluctuations.

Effective vaccination program

When heifer calves get respiratory diseases like BRD, future cow productivity is damaged. Vaccinating calves against respiratory disease prior to weaning gives calves the opportunity for their immune systems to work at optimum levels, and will keep the heifer protected as she continues to grow.

Dr. Vlietstra strongly encourages producers to follow product label directions closely, including administering appropriate boosters to provide adequate protection. 

“Respiratory disease is the number one challenge heifers face up until pre-breeding, and at that point, we need to start worrying about preventing reproductive diseases. To minimize setbacks due to common respiratory and reproductive challenges, I encourage dairy producers to work with their local veterinarian to establish a modified-live virus [MLV] vaccination program.”

An MLV vaccine is known for its effectiveness; however, it must be given 30 to 60 days pre-breeding. The timing means you should consult your veterinarian several months prior to breeding to determine the best vaccination program for your herd, including whether an MLV vaccine will work for you.

“We see our nutritionist once every two weeks, and our veterinarian weekly,” added Badillo. “Working closely with these professionals has helped us develop protocols that make the most sense for our dairy.”