Slower growing dairy heifers need to have the right start early in their lives to become productive cows
Replacement dairy heifers play a pivotal role in keeping dairies up and running.
Dairy heifers have a slower growth rate than their beef cattle counterparts, so ensuring that their nutritional needs are met during critical stages of development should be at the top of a producer’s herd management list.
One resource for dairy producers who are working towards developing top notch heifers is the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association. This organization focuses on providing members with resources and education for improving herd health and raising well developed animals that fit their gold standards.
“The Dairy Calf and Heifer Association gold standard has been declared that our dairy calves should double their weight from birth to 60 days of age,” said Reagan Bluel, University of Missouri Extension regional dairy Specialist. “Therefore, we expect an average 1.5 pounds of gain per day for Holsteins, and 1 pound of gain per day on Jersey calves.”
“To achieve this rate of gain, we recommended an accelerated feeding program during the ‘hutch phase’ of life. Accelerated refers to both the volume and concentration of milk delivered to the calf. Typical accelerated feeding programs increase the amount of dry milk and replace solids by 1.5 pounds, three times the conventional programs.”
Accelerating the feeding program does not mean simply upping the amount of milk replacer – it means increasing the protein content of the calves’ diet to promote appropriate growth and development.
“Research has shown that increasing conventional 20/20 (protein: fat) milk replacer will not achieve your goals,” said Bluel. “It is important to increase the protein fraction of the replacer to ensure a lean, skeletal growth on the frame of your heifer. Accelerated programs vary depending on the manufacturer – however, I recommend protein to range 26-28 percent while keeping fat at 15-20 percent.”
While this accelerated feeding program seems costly, Dr. Michael Looper, animal science professor and department head at the University of Arkansas, encourages dairy producers to look ahead when considering this approach.
“Feeding heifers for rapid gains costs more per day than feeding for low gains; however, development of replacement heifers is an investment in the future,” he said. “First-lactation cows significantly contribute to herd production and profit. A recommended goal for dairy replacement heifers is to calve at 24 months of age with a targeted post – calving body weight of 1,250 pounds.”
Bluel also encouraged producers to weigh the cost of such a program with the benefits.
“This accelerated plane of nutrition does come at a cost,” she said. “However, research shows milk production of your first calf heifers is greatly impacted and will typically average 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of milk more than their conventionally fed counterparts.” Quality forage and pasture management can also play a role in well-developed dairy heifers. An article by the University of Missouri Extension, Dairy Grazing: Heifer Development, shared a study from the University of Vermont where 20 Holstein and crossbred calves were reared from 2 days of age until weaning on pasture under management-intensive grazing. The calves grazed Kentucky bluegrass and white clover starting at a height of 4 inches and grazed it to a 2-inch stubble height. Calves were each fed two gallons of milk per day, using barrels with New Zealand-style nipples and 2 pounds of a 19-percent crude protein calf starter. At weaning (about 60 days) the calves were separated by weight and breed into two groups, one of which received 2 pounds per day of 19 percent crude protein calf starter and the other 4 pounds. Both groups of heifers showed an average daily gain (ADG) of 1.5 pounds per day after weaning until the end of the grazing season. This trial would indicate that weaned heifers can show an adequate rate of gain, if 1.5 pounds ADG is acceptable, on high-quality pasture after weaning.
The most important aspect of a well-developed dairy heifer is her beginning.
“Start her off right,” advised Bluel. “Even the best management conditions won’t fix a bad start. Ensure that every heifer on the farm receives adequate colostrum within the first 24 hours of life.”
The colostrum should be of tested high quality and fed in adequate quantity.
“If you’ve started your replacement heifers off on the right foot, continuing to maintain good development will be that much easier,” Bluel said.