Dairy producers are often not capturing maximum value from their heifers. As producers and their advisors meet in the conference room (or kitchen) to discuss heifer management, the first step to getting maximum profit potential from heifers is to establish a set of protocols to ensure heifers are on the appropriate nutrition, vaccination and management programs.
By Doug Scholz, DVM.
Replacement heifers have a tremendous influence on the genetics, profitability and sustainability of dairy herds. Healthy and well-developed heifers provide several economic advantages for producers – they reach breeding size sooner, get to the milking string earlier, have lower rearing costs and a significant financial impact on a dairy’s long-term prosperity.
1) Why aren’t heifers a higher priority for most producers?
Unfortunately, heifers usually take a backseat to other farm management areas that directly impact short-term cash flow. When milk prices are low and feed costs are high, it’s not surprising that most dairy producers’ day-to-day priorities focus on management areas directly impacting immediate revenue. But history suggests that even in times of high milk prices and economic prosperity, certain management areas are traditionally underserved, and potential profits are left on the table. Heifer management may be the most common example. As an industry, we haven’t been very progressive in establishing standards for managing heifers, and there is a lot of room for improvement in this area.
Talk to your veterinarian about your current heifer management program, identifying areas for change or improvement. Discuss immediate areas of focus to resolve any recurring problem areas.
2) Where could I be losing potential value from my heifers?
Lost value typically stems from a lack of consistency and formalized protocols surrounding heifer management, resulting in diminished growth and inefficient reproduction. Wide variances in heifer growth rates, calving age and health protocols are common, representing thousands of dollars in lost income potential. These losses are cumulative over the cow’s lifetime and come from poor performance, reduced milk production and extra healthcare costs.
Ask your veterinarian about setting goals for heifer growth rates and body condition scores. Ask about record-keeping tools to help ensure protocols are followed consistently. Discuss prevention strategies against diseases like Lepto hardjo-bovis that can lead to reproductive failure.
3) What are the most important management factors influencing heifer performance?
It really begins with prenatal care, making sure dams are on a solid health management plan prior to calving. Once the calf is on the ground, the most important management areas are colostrum, growth and development, nutrition, vaccination and/or disease prevention.
Ask your veterinarian about vaccination timing for pregnant cows to ensure protective antibodies are transferred in the colostrum. Talk to your veterinarian about transitioning calves to a postweaning diet designed for volumetric growth.
4) Why is proper vaccination so important for heifers?
One of the most critical elements in a successful heifer management program is an effective vaccination strategy. In fact, proper vaccination is just as important as nutrition in promoting heifer health. What producers might not realize is that calves born to first-calf heifers are significantly more vulnerable to diseases than calves born to older cows. For instance, research has shown that the odds of a calf dying from scours are six times greater when it’s born to a first-calf heifer, as compared to an adult cow. Adult cows that are vaccinated properly have higher antibody levels in the colostrum to pass on to the calf. Heifers, on the other hand, haven’t yet been exposed to antigen loads high enough to stimulate their immune systems, so the level of protective antibodies in a heifer’s colostrum isn’t nearly as high as an adult cow’s. In addition to scours, heifers need effective vaccination against reproductive and respiratory diseases.
Ask your veterinarian about vaccination timing for heifer calves. Protection from respiratory, reproductive and clostridial diseases is needed at two to four weeks of age. Booster doses may be needed at weaning.
5) What is the most critical time for heifer development?
The period from calving to three months of age is without question the most critical time for heifer growth and development. Heifers with a history of disease, insufficient nutrition or overcrowded housing conditions as young calves are likely to perform poorly in both reproduction and milk production. Getting heifers off to a fast start is the key to ensuring they reach breeding condition on time and in good health. Your veterinarian can help you install a heifer management plan to ensure your heifers start quickly and are well-prepared for a profitable role on the dairy.
Ask your veterinarian about grouping calves according to their nutritional and management needs. Placing three to four animals in a group for one month postweaning allows calves to gradually adjust to group living. Ask about ways to improve calf environment to minimize exposure to viral and bacterial pathogens.