Calf and heifer management programs are vital to the success of your business. Before genomics became popular, heifers often fell to the bottom of the priority list. There was a perception that they were just an expense on the ledger and had little value until they had their first calf and started milking. However, these animals are the future of their milking herd.
Take time to make sure you’re doing enough for both calves and heifers and consider focusing on these three important areas.
1.) Optimal Nutrition Starts on Day 1
The creation of a healthy, productive heifer starts at birth with the delivery of adequate levels of high-quality colostrum as soon as possible. Colostrum should be harvested from the cow cleanly, quickly, and before the cow begins to reabsorb immunoglobulins. You can understand how well your colostrum program is working by evaluating passive transfer of antibodies by measuring serum total protein. If your program is not achieving passive transfer goals, reevaluate the quality, quantity, and cleanliness of colostrum delivery.
For calves to reach their full genetic potential, it’s important to start early and implement a calf raising program that includes maternity and colostrum management, along with a sound, consistent nutrition program. Calves, like cows, thrive on consistency. They should be fed the same product—either whole milk or milk replacer--at the same temperature, at the same time, every day. A water-soluble immune support product can be added to either whole milk or milk replacer to directly support the calf’s immune system and bolster rumen development. Because consistency is so important, complete a gradual transition from a milk-fed to a grain-fed diet over time.
2.) Clean Facilities and Equipment
Keeping facilities and equipment consistently clean can be a challenge. Any surface that comes in contact with milk in any part of the storage or feeding process should be cleaned and disinfected. Equipment used to feed calves should be cleaned and dried between use. For hard to clean equipment, such as a tube feeder, consider storing it completely immersed in a bucket filled with a light disinfectant solution.
Clean equipment and clean facilities go hand in hand. Clean bedding and fresh air can minimize adverse health situations. Starting with newborns, calves should be delivered in a clean, dry maternity area to minimize pathogen exposure. Use a blow drier on newborn calves to dry them off. When they move to individual housing, it’s important to keep bedding dry, especially in wet or cold weather. Allow for proper drainage around hutches. Consider calf jackets to keep calves warm. When calves move from the hutches to group housing, scrape and disinfect hutches between calves. Thoroughly clean and disinfect hutches at least annually.
3.) Are Heifers Mature Enough?
Future profitability can suffer if heifers aren’t mature enough when they get to the milking string. In fact, breeding immature heifers have a profoundly negative impact on future productivity of the herd. It’s important to start with a goal in mind. Heifers should be well grown out and be at 85% of mature body weight soon (DIM<7) after they have their first calf, or 93-95% as a springing heifer (shortly before calving). So, if the average body weight of the mature cows in your herd is 1,500 lbs., springing heifers should be in the 1,400-1,425 lb. range.
From a production standpoint, mature first lactation cows usually produce 15% less than second lactation cows and 25% less than third and fourth lactation cows. If the first lactation cows aren’t hitting growth milestones, it’s time to evaluate the heifer raising program. To do that, it will take some math. First, set some growth parameters. Assuming the goal is in that 1,425-pound range, an ideal breeding weight would therefore be 55% of their mature weight, or about 785 pounds. Usually this frame/weight is achieved at 13-14m, depending on the average daily gain (ADG) genotype and health of the animal. Heifers double their birth weight by weaning, so assuming an average birth weight of 90 lbs, weaning weight would be 180 lbs at about 60 days old. With those figures in mind, you can identify an ideal growth rate.
If you want to wean calves at 180 lbs and breed them at 785 lbs, that’s 605 lbs of gain. Here are the needed ADG targets for heifers to reach that ideal breeding weight by the month of age specified:
- 12 months: 1.98
- 13 months: 1.81
- 14 months: 1.66
- 15 months: 1.53
Work with your nutritionist and veterinarian for nutrition and management solutions. The right nutrition, starting at birth, and clean facilities that reduce pathogen pressures, offer great opportunities to meet maturity goals.