Measure Calves and Make it Matter – Cody Yanzick, Vita Plus

Posted on December 20, 2013 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Cody Yanzick, Vita Plus dairy specialist
Let’s say your heifer program is struggling.  Animals are getting bred and entering the milking herd later than they should.  You know you need to make changes, but you’re not sure where to start.

The old adage – you can’t manage it if you don’t measure it – certainly applies here.  Track calf performance via heights and bodyweights so that you have a firm grasp on your youngstock’s performance.  Once you know that, you can compare your herd with industry benchmarks and management areas to identify and target any bottlenecks.

Getting the measurements
Heifer heights can be measured with a height stick at either the hip or wither.  The trick is consistency.  Make sure the same spot on every calf is measured to eliminate variation.  It helps to have one person or team in charge of always doing this task to eliminate bias from one set of eyes to another.

When it comes to weight, the best tool to use is a scale.  Today, many of the digital calf scales automatically synch with dairy tracking systems, such as DairyComp 305, to log the data.  The major advantage of using a scale is that it will reduce variation regardless of who is measuring the weights.

If you can’t invest in a scale at this point, body tapes can be used to estimate calf weights.  Just know this tool requires the right facilities.  Make sure the animal is properly restrained.  Always work with safety in mind – both for the people and the animals.  Minimize variation in data by having the same person or team measure the calves every time.

Ideally, you want to track animals’ weights and heights several times in the first year.  Measuring at birth is an absolute must; you need to have a starting point.  Most custom heifer raisers will weigh calves when they are brought to their facilities.  I would recommend again weighing the animals at weaning, six months and pre-breeding (12 months).  At the very minimum, measure the animals at birth and pre-breeding.

Using the data
Once you have the height and weight data for your herd, compare it to industry benchmarks.  Click here to view Penn State’s recommendations for heifer heights and weights of all dairy breeds.

Next, highlight the points at which the animals are not hitting their benchmarks.  Sit down with your whole calf team – including the farm owner, herdsman, calf manager, veterinarian and nutritionist – and evaluate whether those points correlate with different areas on your farm.

  • Are your young calves struggling?  Could this be a health challenge related to poor bedding or air quality?
  • Are animals falling behind in a certain facility?  Are they overcrowded?  (Click here to access a Vita Plus technical bulletin on adequate space for heifers.)
  • Do you see performance dropping at certain times of year due to changes in feed or the environment?  How can you better manage through these changes?

Identify the biggest area for opportunity and focus on that bottleneck first.  Then move through the list until your program is up-to-par with your expectations.  And just remember, if you’re going to measure it, make sure you’re actually using the data.  Otherwise, you’re just wasting everyone’s time.  Tracking performance and making management decisions accordingly can pay dividends in your replacement herd.

Category: Starting Strong - Calf Care
Technology and data management