Heifer development: Dodge the eight bottlenecks often encountered in heifer management

By Ron Goble

Intense heifer management systems are not for all dairy operations, but the changes in the industry the past 3-4 years are building momentum and driving urgency for change.

That was the message from Gene Boomer, DVM, manager for field technical services with Arm & Hammer Animal Nutrition, during the Western Dairy Management Conference held last month in Reno, Nev.

Heifer development programs have not traditionally been a major focus for dairy producers. As long as the cost per day for growth seemed reasonable and death rates remained less than 5%, producers were satisfied, he said.

“With today’s higher feed costs, yardage costs, land values, cull cow values, sexed semen technology, dairy heifer inventory, beef prices, shortage of feeder replacements and the realization that currently you can purchase a springer for $200-$400 less than actual rearing costs, one must focus more on the heifer business enterprise,” said Boomer. “Today’s economy does not automatically give every heifer a lactation career opportunity.”

According to Boomer, success for a dairy heifer development program meant the growing phases of a heifer’s life were managed to achieve high milk production early in first lactation, with minimal variation or negative health events.

Managing the immune system to maximize immune-competence, controlling body condition scores and weights, and monitoring desired hip height, feed efficiency and average daily gains (ADG) at key target points were critical, he said.

As an industry, managers monitor important performance indicators, but generally track those with far too much lag-time to be immediately useful, he explained.

“First-lactation milk production, age at first calving and age at first breeding are just a few of these interesting, but lagging measures,” said Boomer. “The industry has been reluctant to record and monitor early-life indicators like birth weights, passive transfer, average daily gains to 70 and 150 days of age, and disease events, so that culling decisions can be made prior to investing in completely rearing an animal.”

This reluctance carries significant performance and economic costs. For example, said Boomer, research from Cornell and other institutions shows passive transfer has life-long effects on average daily gain and feed efficiency.

Growth rates within individual herds can exhibit remarkable variation. For example, variations of plus or minus 60 days (from average in well-managed herds) were found among Holstein heifers to reach a hip height of 51 inches. This variation demonstrates that dairy producers can no longer set a target age for first breeding without minimally monitoring hip height, he explained.

“Heifer management without recording and monitoring the most relevant key performance indicators would be like managing your lactating herd without milk weights or bulk tank records,” he said.

First 100 days critical
Boomer focused on key areas of nutritional management – especially the first 100 days of age – and identified new key performance indicators that most heifer management programs either do not record or don’t use to their full potential.

From field experience, the following eight bottlenecks or phases of heifer development are areas where heifer development programs are often inadequate, he said.

Eight bottlenecks
1) Colostrum harvest and delivery (Day 1). The goal is to feed colostrum within the first hour of life – ideally from the mother and not pooled or frozen, Boomer said.

Cleanliness determines the effectiveness of colostrum, and pathogen exposure of newborn calves is minimized by: a.) removing the calf from the dam and calving area immediately; b.) cleaning and disinfecting the udder before colostrum harvest; c.) sanitizing milking, storage and feeding equipment; d.) feeding colostrum within 1-2 hours of birth; and e.) storing colostrum in a refrigerator less than 48 hours.

The benefits of achieving successful passive transfer of IgG are: reduced treatment and mortality rates; improved growth rates and feed efficiency; decreased age at first calving; and increased first- and second-lactation milk production, he stressed.

2) Ramping up milk intake, metabolizable energy and protein (Week 1). Things to watch include variations when feeding whole milk, hospital milk, milk replacer or a combination; feeding frequency (2x, 3x or 4x); feeding volume (two quart vs. three quarts); and feed delivery (bottles vs. buckets). Solids level between 12.5% to 18% must be consistent for each feeding. Ramp up intakes during the first seven days – especially in cold weather and with Jerseys. Metabolizable energy is a limiting nutrient in cold weather. Cleanliness, consistency and free-choice water are essential.

Boomer’s milk feeding recommendations are: Week 1, Day 2-7 – increase volume of milk as rapidly as possible to three quarts, 3X per day; Weeks 2-7 – three quarts, 3X daily; Week 8 – two quarts, 2X daily; Week 9 – two quarts 1X a day; and Week 10 – wean.

3) Weaning. The weaning decision should be based on calf starter intake vs. days of age, which might be difficult, but not impossible to measure in large operations, Boomer said. Do not wean calves until they are eating 2.5 to 3 lbs. calf starter, and do not move them to group pens until they are eating 6 to 8 lbs. of starter.

All schedules should be based on calf performance. Calves should remain in hutches until eating 8 lbs. quality starter grain mix, along with plenty of free-choice water. Don’t introduce hay until in group pens for one to two weeks, he said.

4) Grouping lag. Boomer recommends  transfer to group pens at Week 11; introduction of forage at Week 12; and introduction of a grower grain mix at Week 15.

A ration comparison during this phase from Weeks 11 to 18 showed the efficiency of a ration of 18% crude protein (CP) high roughage at $300/ton was much less productive than a ration of 22% CP, SCSGM +10 alfalfa hay at $450/ton. ADG was 1.7 lbs. compared to 2.34 lbs., respectively, with the higher quality feed. The cost per lb. of gain was the same overall, at $1.35/lb.

5) Grower grain mix, increasing percent of forages (Week 18). Don’t introduce corn silage, haylage or low-quality hay until five months of age, Boomer said. Calves are preruminants and cannot digest these roughages. Feeding these forages too early can lead to reduced feed efficiency, lower ADG and result in a higher cost per pound of gain, he said.

“Mix must be carefully formulated to supply correct amounts of coccidiostats, protein and vitamin/trace minerals to supplement varying amounts and quality of forage,” he said.

6) Introduction to breeding pen. This decision must be based primarily on accurate hip heights and, secondarily, on age and weight, he said. Holsteins should be 51-52 inches at the hip when entering the breeding pen. He recommended not breeding Holsteins before 10 months of age.

“A well-managed Holstein heifer development program will have more than 90% of animals at adequate breeding size at 10-14 months of age, which is normal variation due to genetics, growth rate, feed efficiency and disease factors,” he said. “Waiting too long to initiate breeding often results in over-conditioned heifers.”
7) Movement to close-up pen. Boomer suggested moving heifers to the close-up pens before 250 days into the gestation period.

“The most common mistake is waiting too long to move animals, and a second mistake is not feeding rumen microbes to provide proper amounts of metabolized protein. If metritis is a concern with fresh heifers, feed a negative DCAD diet.”
Herd managers should monitor days in close-up pen and dry matter intake variation and averages, he said.

8) Animal comfort and welfare (from Day 1 forward). Boomer urged operators to develop and use protocols for housing, feeding, breeding and animal handling. Other areas of monitoring may also be developed as a dairy producer sees need.

The bottom line, said Boomer, is that “current input costs require more intensive management and requires data from performance indicators like ADG and feed efficiency. These indicators enable managers to make better decisions and obtain the best return on their investment.”

An operator’s focus on dairy heifer development is essential, and an area of opportunity for most herds, he concluded.