On dairy farms, efforts to improve feed efficiency often revolve around the lactating cows, but other groups within the herd can be an important part of the puzzle. This includes a dairy’s replacements.

“I think there is a great opportunity, and oftentimes a missed opportunity, to work on the heifer enterprise,” said Mary Beth de Ondarza, owner of Paradox Nutrition, LLC. She talked about improvements that can be made when it comes to feeding and managing heifers during an episode of the Hoard’s Dairyman “Herd It Here” podcast.

In terms of efficiency, de Ondarza said opportunities lie in reducing the number of days needed to grow a heifer until it calves and improving first-lactation milk production. Through her work as a consultant, she said many well-managed dairies are calving heifers at 90% of the herd’s mature body weight at 22 months of age, and in their first lactation, those heifers are yielding at least 90% of what the mature cows are producing. To achieve this, de Ondarza sees three main areas to work on.

The first is getting calves off to a great start. This includes colostrum management, attentive care the first 24 hours of life, and feeding higher rates of milk or milk replacer.

Second, she said farms need to have high postweaning growth rates. “That weaning period is critical to keep those calves going,” de Ondarza emphasized. She has seen plenty of farms using an accelerated milk or milk replacer feeding program, but then the calves bottom out after weaning. “You can’t do that,” she said. “You are going to lose all the money you put into them.”

The biggest opportunity, according to de Ondarza, is the young heifers from 2 to 8 months. “We have this idea that once we get calves growing well, and we get them weaned, that then we can be cheap and don’t have to feed them well,” she noted, but that is not the case.

These heifers need a well-balanced ration, including amino acids. Preweaned calves get the amino acids they need from milk, and they can easily turn that to muscle and bone. Similarly, bred heifers can easily make a lot of microbial protein to turn to muscle and bone, de Ondarza said. The young heifers, she explained, are not there yet. Protein-wise, they need to be fed more like a cow making 100 pounds of milk. This may include bypass soy protein, animal proteins, and protected amino acids. These are added costs, but de Ondarza said the heifers are going to respond.

“You are going to see it when you measure them and when you look over the fence,” she noted. “That’s efficiency: when you can cut those days until she calves and make more milk when she calves.”

To learn more, listen to the “Herd It Here” podcast episode, titled “A closer look at feed efficiency.” This episode was sponsored by Purina Animal Nutrition.

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(c) Hoard's Dairyman Intel 2024
June 17, 2024
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