Is your heifer program consistently good? Or just good?

Published on Mon, 11/21/2016 - 3:13pm

Chuck Schwartau, University of Minnesota / Extension

Most farmers thinking about consistency of performance have focused on the milking herd. How consistent is the milking process? How consistent is the dry cow management program? How consistent is the feed preparation process?

What about the heifer program? Is it consistent for developing heifers to calve at an appropriate age? On many farms, heifers are probably the most frequently ignored part of the dairy operation. This is one reason more and more dairies have been turning to custom heifer raisers where someone else will devote specific attention to heifer management. Consistent management practices are very important in developing a high quality heifer for the future milking string.

At the 2005 Four-State Dairy Management Seminar held in February, Patrick Hoffman, University of Wisconsin , spoke about monitoring heifer development in order to find areas of inconsistency and thus, be able to determine what needs to be done to correct them. For example, even if DHIA records indicate your heifers’ average age at calving is 24 months, careful analysis may show there is a range from 21 to 30 months. Through monitoring and charting, patterns of calving age can be revealed and the variation of these ages will be seen. You are then in a position to start analyzing why the ages range as they do and a management strategy can be developed to get a more consistent calving age. If this is a problem on your farm, variation in growth rates may be a good place to start monitoring consistency in your heifer program.

Monitoring consistency means being able to measure the heifers. In order to determine their growth rates, it is essential to have a facility on the farm where this can be done accurately and easily. This means having proper handling pens and chutes, a scale, and possibly computer software to help collect and analyze the data necessary to do a good job. Although this may seem like an additional cost the dairy producer may have trouble justifying, the extra five or six months it takes to reach first calving multiplied by several heifers becomes a major cost to the dairy farm. As heifers approach 1200 lbs. they can easily incur feed costs of $1.25 or more per day, or $35 to $40 per month. When that feed cost is added to the extra weeks or months of lost milk production (which can easily have a value of $10 or more per day), getting all heifers to calf consistently at an appropriate age becomes a major economic factor in the profitability of the farm.

At the Four-State seminar, Hoffman illustrated his point about monitoring heifer development with charts showing heifer weights at various ages from two Wisconsin farms. The two farms had identical average heifer growth rates. However, one farm had 77% of its heifers growing within the accepted range between small and large Holstein genetic expectations while the other farm had only 41%. Without careful monitoring, the farm with 41% might think its management is on track because on the average its heifers were growing as they should. What they didn’t realize was that some of those heifers were large for normal breeding age while others were small. Both groups can be costing the farm money.

Once the producer identifies these variations, plans of action can be developed to reduce them. Plans of action must look at factors affecting replacement heifer growth and development. Not all those factors are nutritional or genetic. Among other factors Hoffman identified that can make a difference include:

*  Pneumonia

*  Hoof disease

*  Respiratory health

*  Parasites

*  Bunk space

*  Crowding

*  Injury or trauma

*  Liver abscess

*  Hardware

*  BVD

*  Acidosis

*  Comfort

*  Dystocia

*  Harsh environmental conditions

Typically, we may associate this list with the milking herd. But, similar attention is deserved for heifers. It could be a “pay me now or pay me later” situation, if heifers are neglected in favor of the milking herd.

Determining the specific factors of why there are inconsistent heifer growth patterns may not be easy. Multiple factors could be involved. Measurement of growth and analysis of health records can help determine the area(s) that need to be addressed

 first. These can point out problem areas and sources of variations. This should lead to preliminary recommendations for adjustments in the management plan, decisions on desired goals, what adjustments need to be made, and what course of action is needed to reach those goals (see figure). 

As time progresses, regularly monitor progress toward the desired goals. Have reasonable expectations. Some goals could take up to a year to determine whether or not they are being achieved, although one hopes to see indicators of trends moving toward the goals in a shorter time. Work with appropriate advisors to set some intermediate indicators that can be monitored for progress. If progress is being made, continue on the chosen course. If however, there seems to be no progress or even a decline, adjusting the course of action or starting the process over may be necessary. This is a critical point in the monitoring and management action cycle. Looking at the wrong factors or not recognizing what is happening could lead to making unnecessary or incorrect adjustments.

Consistency – consistency – consistency. Remaining profitable depends on getting things done consistently all the time. Consistency comes from setting courses of action, following them day after day and making very deliberate changes only when monitoring suggests they are needed.

More information about Patrick Hoffman’s “Quality Control Systems in Dairy Replacement Heifer Nutrition” including his six Critical Control Points, tables and graphs can be found on the University of Wisconsin Extension website.