Make More No. 1 Heifers

Posted on September 18, 2020 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Dr. Noah Litherland, Vita Plus dairy youngstock technical specialist
Developing replacement heifers is a significant and necessary expenditure for dairies, requiring an investment of $1,800 to $2,200 per head to get them to the start of first lactation.  Make the most of your investment by raising the right number of heifers.

Facility capacity, feed and bedding inventories, and available capital are all key factors impacting replacement heifer numbers.  Many farms forecast their replacement heifer needs two to three years in advance to avoid excess or a shortfall in the system.

Define your No. 1 heifer
Raising the right number of heifers also means we must continue to focus on raising quality heifers.  Grading heifers is a strategy to help make heifer culling decisions.

Interpreting potential heifer performance is complicated.  Effects of genetics, birth and rearing environment, nutrition, disease, management, and economic factors make it difficult to make clear and decisive recommendations for heifer growers.  As such, the definition of a “No. 1 heifer” is unique to every farm.  Perhaps a reasonable description of a No. 1 heifer is a heifer that:

  • Successfully navigates the nursery phase with a solid average daily gain (ADG) of 1.8 pounds per day or greater for Holsteins
  • Completes the nursery phase with no more than one health treatment
  • Transitions well into the grower phase and continues to grow efficiently and steadily
  • Is reproductively efficient
  • Completes her first lactation with a production average of 82% to 85% of mature cows in the herd

A No. 2 heifer is an average calf that does not quite have the growth or health of a No. 1 heifer but still has good qualities and enough potential to justify the investment.  A No. 3 heifer is one that is likely to struggle through the system and, thus, a good candidate to leave the herd.

No. 1 heifers grow efficiently
Evaluating overall growth – and the factors that impact it through all stages – offers insight into the performance of your program.  Maintaining steady growth curves within the group results in increased uniformity of replacement heifers.  Furthermore, increasing the trajectory of the growth curve during the first 90 days has a considerable impact on heifer size at calving.

Holstein calves should enter the grower phase at a minimum of 190 pounds, maintain an ADG of 1.8 pounds per day, and weigh about 240 pounds by 90 days old.  A six-month weight gives an indication of how well calves have transitioned onto a TMR and into larger groups.  Again, the goal should be to maintain a 1.8 pound-per-day ADG from three to six months with an average weight of 400 to 450 pounds at six months old.

No. 1 heifers have healthy lungs
Respiratory disease is still one of the primary health disorders in replacement heifers.  Wild swings in temperature and damp weather make the fall and spring months particularly challenging.  Thoracic ultrasound has been effective in determining the extent and severity of respiratory disease.  It further provides insight to determine whether a treatment plan or shift in management is effective in reducing risk of respiratory disease.  Keeping respiratory disease incidence in check boosts the “staying power” of your herd.

Raise the ideal number of replacements with a high percentage of No. 1 heifers
Given the cost of the investment, you need to raise the optimal number of heifers to meet your replacement needs.  Once you know that number, focus on increasing the quality of replacement heifers by grading their performance.  Heifer growth and heifer staying power are two key factors to investigate for greater return on your youngstock investment.

This article was written for the March 12, 2020, issue of Progressive Dairy magazine.  Click here for the original article.

Category: Animal health
Calf and heifer nutrition
Starting Strong - Calf Care