May 31 2023 01:33 PM

Gavin Staley, Ruminant Technical Specialist with Diamond V

The information below has been supplied by dairy marketers and other industry organizations. It has not been edited, verified or endorsed by Hoard's Dairyman.

It’s easy to get impatient and want to breed heifers early to get them into the lactating herd and have them start paying off their debts as soon as possible. But if long term success is the goal, then making sure the heifers reach the milking string fully prepared to perform will help establish long-term success.

These ‘platinum’ heifers grow well and are prepared to freshen and thrive as cows. Set your herd goals to produce as many platinum heifers as possible.

  1. Target breeding by weight, not age. (Caveat: heifers must not be over-conditioned and heifer body height should always be a consideration) The right weight is based on your herd’s average mature weight, which is the average of your third and fourth-lactation cows when they are between 80 and 120 days in milk. Virgin heifers should be 55% of mature body weight at breeding. If the mature average weight in your Holstein herd is 1,500 pounds, then ideal breeding weight would be 825 pounds.

  2. Grow heifers to hit target weights in a reasonable amount of time. Since you are going off heifer size to make your breeding decision and not age, it’s important to weigh heifers at regular intervals—birth, weaning, pre-breeding, etc.—to make sure heifers are progressing toward the weight goal. Do not rely on eyeball assessments…use a scale or girth tape. If heifers are bred at their ideal weight, then your heifer management program needs to continue their growth through to freshening. Ideally heifers will be at 93-95% of mature weight close to calving (DCC>260). Once they freshen (DIM<7) they should still be 85% of mature body weight. Determine the difference between goal and actual weights and adjust by either delaying breeding of virgin heifers or increasing average daily gain (or a combination of both). Maturity is the goal. Decide how best to get there.

  3. Focus on 10-week milk. A good indicator of the success of your heifer management program is milk production in the first lactation at 10 weeks into lactation. The average annual milk production of a dairy approximates to the 10-week milk production of first lactation animals (with 38% Lact1 % of herd). Data suggests that heifer milk production sets the production “ceiling” for the entire herd. A herd cannot overcome the restrictions placed on it by under-performing heifers and, conversely, high-producing herds will always have high-producing heifers. An improvement in lactation 1 production has a knock-on effect on the whole herd as they mature and move into later lactations. Analogous to “a rising tide lifts all ships”. Logically, it follows that an improvement of a pound of milk at 10 weeks in the first lactation translates to an additional pound of milk for every cow, every day as these first-lactation cows move into later lactations.

  4. Create a long, productive life. In general, cows will have paid off their heifer rearing costs early in their second lactation, so it makes sense to retain as many “paid off” animals as is possible. However, lactation 1 under-performers still need to be culled. Animals need to earn the right to stay. At week five in lactation, second lactation cows should be producing at 30 pounds more per day than first lactation cows. This is true in stable herds where annual average production doesn’t change significantly and heifer raising protocols stay the same over time.

It certainly is possible for heifers to reach ideal size at an optimal age. It’s also possible to keep first lactation cows growing and developing so they can turn first lactation success into second lactation success, and beyond. But reaching these milestones takes intentional management and healthy animals. The right nutrition program from birth through calving and into lactation will help heifers reach growth milestones and fulfill their genetic potential.