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Heifer rearing

Modern intensive dairy farms often suffer from poor reproductive performance resulting in shorter productive life of dairy cows. For this reason, producing a quality heifer is becoming more and more important as an investment for the future. However, there is a financial cost involved but rearing your heifers efficiently and getting them in calf earlier will provide significant returns from a healthy, fertile cow.

The most common objective is to serve heifers at 15 months old at 360 – 380kg, to calve down at 24 months old. However, this often slips to 26 or 28 months.

Reducing the age of calving by 4 months means that you could need less heifers to maintain your replacement rate, reducing feeding costs and potentially saving you up to £9000 per year.

Early calving heifers on average peak at a higher milk yield compared to heifers calving over 2 years old. These animals are also more likely to complete their first lactation and have a better longevity than older calving heifers.

To maintain a good body condition score on your heifers at service, despite the younger age, you must ensure that you achieve a good average daily gain (ADG) and reduce disease incidence. Feed conversion is much more efficient at a younger age so feeding pre-weaning will encourage good growth rates.

Calves in the UK are traditionally fed 2 litres of milk twice a day with or without a starter concentrate ration. This will provide an ADG of 0.5kg per day and will allow weaning at 63 days costing approximately £900.

Feeding 4 litres twice a day will provide an ADG of 1kg/d, allowing weaning at 38 days but with increased feed costs costing £880.

However, the optimum system is to feed 3 litres milk twice a day, providing an increased ADG of 0.8kg/d, weaning at 44 days costing £869 per calf.

Adding chopped straw (at 2.5cm) to pre-weaned calf ration can also increase ADG. The roughage stimulates the rumen and encourages the calf to eat more pellets, thereby increasing dry matter intake and ADG.

Grouping your calves together at or before weaning will also help to maintain the ADG. This is known as social facilitation: despite being under a stressful situation, the calf will see other calves in the group feeding and will follow suit.

All these ways of increasing average daily gain will make the heifers stronger so that they are more resilient to stresses and will be able to fight off diseases such as pneumonia and scours.

Faster growing animals also achieve a higher 305 day yield. Most udder development takes place in the first 12 weeks of life so at this point, the conformation and blood flow to the mammary tissue is dictated.
Every 100g ADG in the first two months of life results in an extra 30 litres of milk in the first lactation.

So to increase first lactation yields, heifer fertility and resistance to calf diseases it is essential that you maximize average daily gain.

If you would like to discuss this further, please contact one of the vets from the practice.