Farm Ireland

Tuesday 24 April 2018

Stay on top of heifer management to aid performance

Duagh discussion group members Frank Scannell, Patsy Dillon, John
Kirby and Michael Dillon take part in the recent grass measurement competition in Listowel, Co Kerry
Duagh discussion group members Frank Scannell, Patsy Dillon, John Kirby and Michael Dillon take part in the recent grass measurement competition in Listowel, Co Kerry

Dr Mary Kinston

As we draw near to the housing or the winter feeding of weanling heifers and in-calf heifers, heifer rearing is back at the top of the list of priorities.

Brought to my attention recently was the Fertility for Life Cycle. The key point was that from the day a heifer is born, you control the factors that influence her future fertility and whether she goes in calf on time, every time.

In essence, if a heifer is genetically capable to conceive, the quality of your young stock and breeding management will determine whether she calves on time within the first three weeks of calving, and how long you will retain her within the herd. So, the big issue is whether your management of young stock is having a positive or negative impact on your herd's reproductive performance and on stock retention. Questions to consider are:

  • Are there more than 70pc of in-calf heifers calved within three weeks of the start of calving?
  • Do you retain more than 85pc of your first calvers to become second calvers the next year?
  • Are more than 95pc of your maiden heifers submitting for mating within the first three weeks of breeding?

If you're not reaching all of these targets, it may suggest that your management of the heifer calf needs to improve, if all of your other breeding decisions are in order. The key to successful heifer rearing is reaching critical liveweights at set times -- the main ones being 60pc of mature liveweight by mating and 95pc of mature liveweight at calving. Animal age is not so significant.

So, at this time of year for a herd that starts calving in February, it's whether your heifer calves have reached the target of 40pc of mature liveweight at nine months. For example, for a herd with a mature liveweight of 550kg, this refers to a heifer liveweight of 220kg by the middle of this month. Again, this is not an average target for the cross-section of heifers, it's just a minimum for the small, younger ones.

Essentially, top farmers now have systems in place which measure, review and act in a timely fashion to manage both weanling and yearling heifers until calving down.

The aim is to maximise performance and provide continuity across the group in terms of size, weight and condition. Scales have become commonplace and the decisions are simple. Basically, focus on identifying lighter, smaller heifers under target weight, remove them from the main group and give them preferential feeding until they have caught up and reached the next liveweight target.

The more heifers that you have the more important this becomes, as the losses from poor performance are more notable.

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So whether your heifers will be housed, on a pad, or out-wintered on kale, etc, think about separating the smaller, lighter heifers from the group this winter and improve the feed value of the diet on offer, eg 2kg ration per head or excellent quality baled silage, etc. By simply running two groups, the hierarchy is changed and there will be less pressure on these smaller animals while feeding.

If you are outwintering weanling heifers on kale, again separate them into at least two groups working from different ends of the field, and offer a fresh break no wider than 1.5m/day, if possible, to minimise wastage.

It's also sensible to have a second wire through the field in case of a break out as any incident, eg lightning, running deer etc, can cause a degree of unexpected havoc and hassle if an extra fence is not in place.

Another essential element to consider for animals on kale is adequate mineral supplementation of copper, selenium and iodine. Most will opt for boluses or injections as these are easy enough to administer.

However, minerals in the water or lick buckets can also be used. Finally, if there are a few animals not thriving on kale, give them a break, take them off, house them and feed them well.

Dr Mary Kinston is an independent dairy adviser based in Kerry. Email:

Irish Independent