Heifer rearing: What are the priorities?

Heifer calves are the cornerstone of every dairy herd as they are the building blocks for future milk production

Heifer rearing represents up to 20pc of farm expenses according to Moorepark research with an average cost of €1,500 to calve a heifer at 24 months of age.

Given the scale of this investment, dairy calf management has to be a priority for anybody in the business of milk production.

Cows with a longer life and higher production => Increased farm profit + More sustainable production.

Good health and balanced nutrition for the replacement dairy heifer in the first 60 days are critical to maximise production over the lifetime of the animal.

The two main priorities in the first 60 days to ensure optimum future performance are 1) colostrum management and 2) energy intake. Anything that reduces the energy intake of the calf, and reduces the average daily gain, will have long term effects on the ability of that animal to produce milk.

Studies have shown that additional average daily liveweight gain (ADLG) during the first 60 days will result in additional milk yield in the first lactation. For every additional 100g of ADLG during the first 60 days of life, about 225kg of additional milk yield in the first lactation can be expected.

Average daily liveweight gain pre-weaning has been shown to account for a 22pc variation in first lactation yield. In addition growth during the first 60 days is linked to survival, with studies showing that heifers that reached second lactation grew significantly more in the first two months compared with those that did not make it through to the second lactation.

So, all the most recent research in this area indicates that heifers that perform best in the first 60 days of life survive longer and produce more milk, and therefore deliver more profit for the farm.

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Priority 1: Colostrum  Management

For colostrum management, simply remember the 1-2-3: the first milking within two hours of birth, giving 3 litres of colostrum.

Colostrum provides vital protection from the cow to her calf, which will help her fight disease as well as provide an immediate energy boost.

Priority 2: Energy Intake

Calves should be fed twice daily, 3L t a time. Increasing the quantity of milk to 4L twice a day reduces their intake of creep feed, so delays rumen development and when they can be weaned off milk. 

But feeding quantity and timing are only one element of the energy balance.

If calves are stressed due to cold stress i.e. at temperatures less than 15oC and have to expend energy keeping warm this will negatively impact on their energy balance and as a result they will grow more slowly. For example in a large shed with little shelter, calves may not be thriving nor reaching their target average daily liveweight gain simply because they are too cold.

Disease will also reduce a calf’s energy intake as a sick calf is not a thriving calf. Pneumonia in pre-weaned calves has been shown to reduce the first lactation yield by 4% and the second lactation yield by 8pc.

Previously, many farmers focused only on the cost of treating pneumonia at the time of the disease but we now know that it is the long term impact of pneumonia in the baby calf that is the most costly element of the disease, as heifers that experience a few bouts of pneumonia should not be considered as replacement stock as they simply will not perform as well as animals that remained pneumonia free.

Indeed it has been shown that heifer calves that have had a few bouts of pneumonia have an average of 100 days less in milk over their lifetime than animals that were disease free.

So, look after the dairy heifer calves, because that’s where the future profit lies: tús maith, leath na hoibre.

Online Editors

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