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0109 PD: Happy heifers

Bob Patrick Published on 29 December 2008
Pasture-based heifer-raising systems are common in many parts of the country, especially where seasonal temperatures and rainfall allow year-round grazing with no artificial shelter.

These systems have become more in vogue, positively addressing the move toward everything ‘green’ and concerns over animal welfare.

Potential benefits include reduced feed costs (animals harvest crops at higher quality), higher forage yields per acre (especially with rotational grazing), utilization of less productive land, more efficient nutrient recycling and lowered capital investment in facilities.

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Disadvantages of grazing systems compared to confinement rearing include larger acreage requirements, reduced labor efficiency, reduced animal management, reduced control of waste application, and less ration consistency (feast or famine with forage quality).

Observations and suggestions for utilizing pasture-based heifer raising include:

• Develop fencing systems that utilize centralized working/feeding facilities, servicing several pasture groups. Minimize fencing costs by using modern, easily installed and easily repaired fencing systems.

• Use body condition scoring to make daily decisions about rations, use body weights and stature to evaluate long-term nutrition.

• Manage pasture soil fertility as one would manage croplands, soil sampling once or twice a year and developing nutrient management plans. Apply fertilizer and lime as needed to maximize forage production (many pastures have limited production due to lack of nitrogen). Control weed populations through intensive grazing, mowing or herbicides.

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• Establish forages that produce greater pounds of bodyweight per acre, a better measure than pounds of forage per acre. Utilize legumes for increased growth and nitrogen fixation. Intensive rotation with cell grazing will yield more optimal results on fewer acres.

• Install best conservation practices to retain and recycle nutrients and reduce environmental loss of nutrients. Such practices include fencing out bodies of water; utilizing heavy-use materials (crusher run, fly ash, concrete) around water troughs, feeding areas and hay rings; and collecting, composting and applying accumulated waste from these areas. Many of these practices can be cost-shared through federal or state environmental quality programs.

• Utilize synchronized breeding systems to improve reproductive and labor efficiency. Systems used today can achieve two timed breedings within 42 days with 75 percent or greater of animals achieving pregnancy with no daily heat detection.

• Develop vaccination and deworming schedules to coordinate with movement of animals to new pastures. Pay attention to the details (products and timing) of colostrum dosing and vaccination schedules to ensure optimal immunity and reduced morbidity. Sick animals are tougher to find and manage on pasture. Changes in current systems for heifer development are eminent – some voluntary and some forced.

Pasture-based systems may be more pleasing to consumers on many levels and may provide opportunities to growers to enhance heifer growth and available resources.

References omitted due to space but are available upon request.

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—Excerpts from Dairy Calf and Heifer Association Heard in the Hutch newsletter, November 2008

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