Replacement heifers are one of your most valuable assets on a dairy farm. They are the future of the milking herd and ultimately determine the longevity of your entire herd and business. That’s why preparing dairy heifers for a successful transition into lactation is critical.
Research has shown that early calf care and nutrition are the foundation for growth and overall health and can have a significant impact on the potential milk production and reproduction of your replacement dairy heifers in the future.
If a calf’s birth is mismanaged from either care or nutrition, we can expose them to bacteria and viruses that can lead to illnesses that can negatively impact their growth and future performance. Research by Cornell University showed that each 0.1 lb. increase in pre-weaning ADG resulted in 155 lbs. more first lactation milk yield.1 This ultimately showcases the importance of calf care and nutrition in the calf’s early stages to help keep its full performance potential that will pay off in the first and subsequent lactations.
Breeding at optimal size
During the post-weaning stage of development, it’s important to focus on ADG and volumetric growth to help reach optimal breeding size. Breeding properly developed heifers allows them to optimize milk production in the first 6 months of lactation. In turn, their productive life starts sooner, and your ROI is realized quicker.
Dialing in your lactation diet
Once your heifers are bred, proper nutrition and management are once again key for a successful first lactation. It is important to provide a balanced, highly digestible diet with adequate metabolizable energy and protein because you are not only asking the heifer to continue to grow or maintain body condition, but also to produce as much milk as possible.
When working with your nutritionist to formulate a ration for first lactation heifers, it should balance the following:
- Energy – Increasing energy is the easiest way to increase the caloric volume.
- Metabolizable protein – Metabolizable protein helps make the diet more digestible so the heifer can partition her energy to milk production rather than digestion.
- Fatty acids – Fats help the heifer manage body condition, body energy status and increase nutrient digestibility.
- Fiber – The correct level and type of fiber will help maintain a healthy rumen for optimal fermentation and performance.
- Sugars and starches – Balance sugar and starch with fiber to help reduce excess acid production that could lead to rumen challenges such as acidosis.
- Macro and micronutrients – The kind and amount of macro and micronutrients added to the ration can vary based on heifer need and ingredient availability.
Preparing dairy heifers for a successful first lactation can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. By focusing on proper management and nutrition to get your heifers off to a great start, you can maximize your calves’ growth and potential for maximum milk production in her first lactation and beyond.
1 Soberon, F., and Van Amburgh, M. 2013. Lactation biology symposium: The effect of nutrient intake from milk or milk replacer of pre-weaned dairy calves on lactation milk yield as adults: A meta-analysis of current data. J. Anim. Sci. 91:706–712.