Don’t Sacrifice Cow Performance With Poor Heifer Nutrition – Floyd Sutton, Zinpro
Imagine you have a three-year-old daughter. Up to this point, you’ve done your absolute best to provide her with a healthy diet. You make sure she eats a balance of dairy foods, meats, fruits, vegetables and nutritious grains.
Now, you’re going to switch her to a diet of donuts and candy and let her stay on that diet through most of her teenage years. And then you’ll expect her to be an Olympic athlete.
Does that seem outrageous? As Zinpro’s Floyd Sutton points out, this isn’t all that unlike many heifer feeding programs.
Today’s calf raisers do an outstanding job with their baby calf nutrition programs. But then they might be tempted to move toward a cheaper diet – with lower nutritional quality – to save a few pennies until these animals reach the milking herd. Sutton said that could be a costly decision in the long run.
“Think about your heifer as a developing cow,” he said. “She needs great nutrition.”
Sutton used zinc, a trace mineral, as an example. Forages are often deficient in zinc. Because this mineral is a part of more than 200 enzyme systems, a zinc deficiency leaves a hole in metabolic functions. The first place that deficiency is noticed is in a loss of feed efficiency. In addition, zinc contributes to the animal’s body structure and helps to build epithelial tissue, which lines the gut, reproductive organs, and mammary glands.
Although a zinc-deficient animal will probably not look sick, Sutton said it can look “rough” and fall behind when it comes time for her to enter the milking herd.
Sutton said producers should work with their nutritionists to balance for protein, energy, vitamins and minerals in heifer diets to achieve the best quality of growth.
Also consider the types of feeds available for your heifers. If you are able to feed a TMR, it’s much easier to control intakes of vitamins and minerals than if you’re feeding individual ingredients. That’s because, the more choices a heifer has, the more likely she is to pick and choose what she does and doesn’t eat. To address this problem, Sutton said you should make sure heifers have enough space so that every animal in the pen can eat at one time and prevent the dominant animal from “getting all the treats.”
But what about cost? Can you really afford to feed high quality diets to heifers?
Sutton said this might require a change in your heifer-raising strategy. Look at your replacement inventory needs. Do you really need to feed every heifer on the farm? Can you take advantage of technologies like genomics to make highly informed culling decisions?
Sutton said a good exercise is to ask, “Do I want to feed 90 heifers correctly or 100 heifers cheaply?”
It’s a waste of money to feed a heifer with poor genetic potential only to cull her in the first lactation, said Sutton. Instead, to control costs, identify the best heifers, feed them well, and optimize their performance as they enter the milking herd.
“Benefits of this investment in nutrition show up in future lactations,” Sutton said. “Remember, you’re feeding for the future.”
Calf and heifer nutrition
Starting Strong - Calf Care