Focusing on heifer rearing

Michael Gould, who owns the well-known Woodmarsh Holsteins of
Shropshire, England, will be judging this year's Bailey Irish Champion Cow competition, which
takes place at the Virginia Show on Saturday week
Michael Gould, who owns the well-known Woodmarsh Holsteins of Shropshire, England, will be judging this year's Bailey Irish Champion Cow competition, which takes place at the Virginia Show on Saturday week

Mary Kinston

Many farmers are now considering an expansion in cow numbers. This increase in herd size is heavily reliant on increasing the number of heifer calves born, which are successfully reared until calving down, ideally two years later.

Many farmers have endeavoured to maximise the number of dairy heifer calves born. With this in mind, they now use AI or dairy stock bulls on heifers and cows, and extend the period of AI mating, etc. Unfortunately, this is the easy bit.

So why focus on heifer rearing when the majority of spring calves are weaned? The stark reality is that as herd size and heifer numbers increase, the performance and liveweight (LW) gain tends to decrease. It's from now on that a large divergence in size and weight of heifers results, and the bottom 25pc is very evident and noticeable.

Regrettably, it often isn't until mating that we realise there are a number of heifers which are too small. At this point, you either breed them on time, breed them later, or carry her over until next year -- all of which have significant losses of production, efficiency and profit. Small heifers have significantly lower production levels in first and second lactation (eg heifers 50kg behind target liveweight at calving produce around 300 litres less over two years).

Higher replacement rates also reduce herd milk yields. Therefore, in the expansion phase, these two factors will substantially reduce overall output per cow and potential profitability of the herd. Small heifers often won't go in calf early because of delayed oestrus.

However, to offset the reality of small heifers, some decide to mate all the heifers later. This results in a poorer calving spread of the herd and a substantially reduced longevity of the heifers.

And don't leave the bull in with heifers too long. A maximum of 12 weeks from start of mating is sufficient. Others opt to roll over light heifers, which gives them a chance of herd longevity, but the extra year comes at a cost. So, instead of the above, give all heifers a fair chance by maximising the liveweight gain in this critical period from now until winter.

What are the targets? To avoid any negative impacts of liveweight on reproductive performance at mating (target 60pc of LW) and subsequent lactation, heifers need to be 30pc of mature liveweight at six months and 40pc of mature liveweight at nine months. For a spring calving herd, which starts calving in February, this relates to heifer liveweight in August and November respectively.

Get the latest news from the Farming Independent team 3 times a week.

For example, if your herd has a mature liveweight of 550kg, then the target liveweight for heifer calves in August is 165kg and in November 220kg. In this example, from August to November, each animal must achieve at least 0.6kgLW/day. These liveweights are a minimum for all calves individually, not a group average.

To weigh your heifers in August, consider weighing all or a cross-section using a crush with scales, weigh band, or taking heifers to a weigh bridge -- record the information and repeat in November with the same animals. If this is too hard, another option is to ask a local cattle dealer to assess them.

A number of key questions must be addressed:

  • Are your heifers in a separate group from male or beef calves? A smaller number of animals in a group and the ability to focus solely on the performance of heifers is crucial to your success.
  • Are your heifers being offered enough fresh, leafy pasture? An option is to rotate the heifers about one week in front of the cows, and remember, once heifers are >100kgLW, they consume far more dry matter than is realised.
  • Do your heifers need dosing? Don't delay if they do -- achieving a growth rate of 0.6kgLW/ day will not happen if they are challenged by internal parasites.
  • Are small heifers evident within the group? Don't use the excuse of birth age in this instant; pull them out when you are dosing and give them priority feeding, in a separate group -- consider meal. At the next routine dose, mix the heifers together again, as small heifers can catch up.
  • Finally, with the potential of extra heifers on the ground next spring, ask yourself if your calf-rearing facilities are adequate, mucked out and disinfected? If not, address these issues now to save you from problems and setbacks in the spring.

Irish Independent

For Stories Like This and More
Download the Free Farming Independent App