Building a better heifer
By Jess Arnott, Calf and Heifer Specialist
What defines your ideal heifer? Is it having zero sick events from birth to calving? What about reaching every growth benchmark on time?
Having a strategic calf and heifer plan and implementing it means going beyond writing your goals down. Reviewing calf inventories, along with calculating cost per pound of gain and recording average daily gains for your calves and heifers is a great place to start.
In today’s market rearing extra heifers is an unnecessary expense. Calf inventories boil down to raising the correct number of animals and keeping the right ones. To calculate your farm’s actual replacements number, we use your specific metrics including herd size, current replacements, age at first calving, and cull rate.
Recently, I worked with a dairy that was raising far too many calves. Calves were doubled up in their hutches and doing poorly because of overcrowding. We calculated a new replacement number, which got them down to one calf per hutch. This, along with changes to their milk feeding protocol amounted to drastic improvements in calf health and performance.
While heifers don’t earn money until they calve, they can still save you money. Cost per pound of gain tracks what you are putting into the calves against the kind of gain you are measuring. When tracking this on dairies we benchmark changes to a calf program to see if their current cost per pound of gain makes sense. So, if the plane of nutrition is increased, we want to make sure we see a return. If we can get the same gain for less money and prove it with cost per pound of gain, we can help farmers make smarter business decisions for their feeding program.
The only way to meet your goals is to measure them. “Targeted Growth” is a tool we use to assess heifer development. This is farm specific and based on the heifer’s growth rate, mature body size, and age at first calving. This tool can help your farm decide what the optimal breeding age is. In some situations, we’ve used it to prove to farms that they can breed and calve sooner. In other cases, a later age at first calving made sense.
When you asses your calf and heifer goals you can make strategic decisions that will help you build your ideal heifer.
This article was previously published by the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association as part of their Summer 2020 Heifer Notes. You can view the article here.