Heifer rearing is one of the biggest expenses on a dairy farm and with increasing prices for milk replacer, feed and buildings in recent years this cost has only gone up. The return on investment doesn’t start until a heifer calves in at two years of age, and most farms will not make any profit until an animal is halfway through, or at the end of, her second lactation.
As we all know, the impact of farming on the environment is under increased scrutiny. An increased heifer culling rate and low heifer production will increase a farm’s carbon footprint. So there are plenty of reasons to ensure your heifers are doing well in their first lactation!
How well are your heifers performing? A good way to find out is by looking at some data and setting targets.
An important KPI to look at is age at first calving. It has been shown a calving age of 22-24 months will result in the highest lifetime production and increased longevity. Of course, heifers have to calve at the correct size (90% of their mature body weight), to avoid calving problems and set them up for success. If heifers calve in too old, or too small, focus should be on nutrition, parasite control (both in the shed and out at grass) and heifer fertility.
Secondly, have a look at average heifer milk production, this should be 80% of the average production of your 2nd + lactation cows. There are several reasons why heifers don’t achieve this. Illness in early lactation can knock an animal for the rest of the lactation, and a close look at transition management is indicated.
In the cow shed, heifers are often outcompeted by the larger cows in the herd for feed and lying space. Creating extra feed space or, ideally, a separate heifer group can pay dividends.
Survival to second lactation, or the % of heifers to re-calve, is another important KPI to look at. This should be over 90%. Have a look at the reasons why heifers were culled (or died). Calving issues will reduce future conception rates and could result in a heifer cull for fertility. Did she have calving difficulties due to her small size or due to bull choice? Or do your heifers suffer from solar bruising and ulcers, resulting in a cull for lameness? The root of the problem could be in management during the rearing period or around calving. It is also useful to look at how many animals reach their 3rd lactation, as this is the first fully profitable lactation and an important economic indicator.
You may have all this data ready to hand, but if you are struggling to find it, your routine vet will be able to help. Information is the key to success and a solution to a problem can only be found if we know there is a problem. Lastly, if you want to work on heifer performance and chat to like-minded people then the 0-6 Youngstock Advisory Service is happy to welcome you to
Written By Charlotte Debbaut, Veterinary Surgeon