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Successfully pasture your heifers to increase milk production and prevent calving issues

Kelli Boylen for Progressive Dairyman Published on 31 March 2016
Pastured heifers will give 2,000-plus pounds more milk

Heifers raised on pasture not only cost you less to raise, they are also healthier and give more milk, according to Jennifer Blazek, a dairy and livestock educator with the University of Wisconsin, and Adam Abel, an NRCS soil conservationist.

Blazek and Abel spoke on the topic of raising heifers on pasture at the 2016 GrassWorks Conference held in Wisconsin. They have both studied the topic and compiled information about grazing heifers.

They both cited study after study they had looked at that showed the positive benefits of grazing heifers. Blazek said that according to the University of Wisconsin Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, heifers on pasture gained an average of 1.97 pounds per head per day, slightly better than the 1.86 pounds per head per day for confined heifers.

And in addition to outperforming confinement heifers in average daily gain, the pastured heifers also outperformed their counterparts in first-lactation milk production.

Abel cited a study, saying, “Pastured heifers will give 2,000-plus pounds more milk and have more days in milk. This doesn’t just compete with confinement systems; it actually does better.”

He also pointed out a University of Minnesota study showing that at first calving, pastured heifers have 50 percent fewer displaced abomasums (DA), 60 percent less calving difficulty, 33 percent fewer cases of milk fever and no skeletal injuries versus 10 percent of confined heifers having injuries.

They also tend to have higher fertility rates, fewer respiratory problems and stay in the herd longer.

Abel said that, time and again, he has had farmers who put their heifers on pasture end up with cows that are more athletic, more toned and the right weight.

Blazek also cited a University of Minnesota study that stated the cost of raising a replacement heifer from 475 pounds to 770 pounds over 145 days on a managed intensive pasture system was $0.95 a day per head.

Replacement heifers raised on feedlots cost $1.49 a day, and that is after “crediting” the confinement system for the value of the manure to cropland.

The cost of raising a dairy heifer has increased significantly from 2007 to 2013, according to a survey of custom growers and dairy farmers in Wisconsin, $1,323 then versus $2,274 more recently. The increases were mainly due to a doubling of feed cost along with increases in bedding cost, veterinarian care and death loss.

Abel said that the relative forage quality (RFQ) requirement for heifers 12 to 18 months old is 115 to 135. Heifers 18 to 24 months old and dry cows need an RFQ of 100 to 120. Calves 3 to 12 months old and heifers the last 200 days before calving require an RFQ of 125 to 150, and bred heifers in their first trimester and calves need the highest RFQ, 140 to 160.

Which annuals and perennials to plant really depend on your location. Abel recommended finding a local farmer who is successfully grazing and asking them for their input, and finding a local grazing specialist through your local extension office or NRCS office.

“I just really can’t stress it enough – if you want to learn how to best graze your heifers, find someone locally who is grazing successfully, from both a management and financial standpoint. That is the best way to get it going,” he said.

Hans Breitenmoser, who operates a 400-cow dairy near Merrill, Wisconsin, told attendees he has had great success with grazing heifers.

“I am finding after five years of managed grazing … I can raise heifers on pasture for about 40 cents per animal per day and reach all of the industry standards for weight and height rates of gains,” Breitenmoser said.

“They are strong and in good condition when they come into my freestall. This still saves me about 40,000 dollars per year over having them custom raised.”

The consensus at the seminar was that outwintering works really well with heifers greater than 500 pounds as long as they have some type of windbreak. Younger animals should have some type of shelter available. Feeding good-quality heifer hay is recommended, as well as rotating pastures for manure management. It’s also important to have a plan to manage water.

As a conservationist, Abel also was excited about the positive environmental aspects. He said pasture systems for heifers have 87 percent less sediment loss than confinement operations, 80 percent less sediment-bound phosphorous and an 80 percent smaller carbon footprint.

Blazek heads up a Dairy Heifer Grazing Initiative in and around Dane County, Wisconsin. (Madison is located in the center of the county.)The project is funded by the Madison Municipal Sewage District to address runoff phosphorous through a watershed granting program.

This program, a collaboration of local and regional partners, was the first project of its kind in Wisconsin and nationally to test this adaptive management concept (grazing heifers) to address runoff.

The project focused on getting dairy heifers off of drylots and barnyards onto improved pasture and offered cost-sharing to farmers. They have dairy producers who are interested in the project, and they are seeking more.

“Our goal is to work with farmers to implement grazing dairy heifers and then use these farms as demonstration farms to educate other farmers,” Blazek said.

Abel said the means to make pasturing heifers work well is managed intensive grazing, which he defines as “bringing livestock and pasture together at the right time and for the proper duration so it is beneficial for both livestock and the pastures.” Other terms for this include prescribed grazing and rotational grazing.

He said a general rule of thumb is one animal per acre of land in the upper Midwest, but that ratio can vary widely by region. Resting paddocks is very important, and be careful not to overgraze.

Abel also stressed the importance of doing soil testing, even on pasture land. “Pastures still have soil needs,” he said.

The negatives of pasturing heifers may include soil compaction and catching expression of natural heats. Some farmers address this issue by having three groups of heifers, pre-breeding age, breeding age and bred. Some spend a few minutes a day observing the heifers, and others decide to use a bull.

Abel recommended having a “sacrifice paddock” to use when it is really muddy out, usually an area with the poorest soil quality or that needs other improvements. The area should be located away from watercourses and wetlands.

The cows may tear up the plants, but they will add manure to the soil when it is reseeded. Another option is to have a concrete area to use temporarily during really muddy times, such as the spring thaw.  PD

PHOTO: Pastured heifers will give 2,000-plus pounds more milk and have more days in milk. This doesn’t just compete with confinement systems; it actually does better. Photo provided by Jennifer Blazek.

Kelli is a freelance writer based out of Waterville, Iowa.

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