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0609 PD: How to identify a premium heifer developer

Bruce W. Hoffman Published on 09 April 2009

With dairies becoming larger and specializing in milk production, many dairies continue to send calves to custom operations that specialize in raising heifers.

Some care for heifers up to 5 or 6 months old; others breed and return a heifer close to freshening. These operations require intense management because they commingle heifers from multiple dairies. Keeping heifers individually and collectively healthy is challenging yet achievable if key management steps are followed.



In my experience, premium heifer developers do three things. They set high standards for death loss, they manage and feed colostrum diligently, and they test for BVD PIs to biosecure their ranch. A PI (persistently infected) calf cannot be cured and spreads large amounts of virus continuously. The virus causes disease or suppresses the immune system of other calves in close proximity. Premium heifer developers also aren’t afraid to cut off dairy clients that don’t actively participate in their heifer development plan. These operations create a plan early, communicate it well to their dairy clients and adhere to it on a daily basis. Most heifer raisers know the how-to steps to keep calves healthy, but determination to follow through with a plan and attention to details separate a premium heifer developer from an average one.

I have spent my career listening to the “secret formulas” and sequences of shots that can keep calves alive. Premium heifer developers recognize that just keeping the calf alive is not the goal. A calf “just kept alive” has experienced an excessive amount of sickness and treatments, costing the calf facility in pharmaceutical bills and the dairymen in forfeited performance. As a veterinarian, my suggestions for rearing calves have always been to raise them with a “management over medicine” philosophy.

B&H Calf Ranch in Jerome, Idaho, is taking that philosophy to the next level. Management says of the ranch’s efforts: “Doing the right things every day causes less headaches and allows us to meet our goals of delivering a healthy heifer back to the dairy.” Here’s why B&H is an example of a premium heifer developer.

Set high standards
B&H has set a high goal for death loss – less than 1 percent for its clients’ heifer calves in the first 30 days. From 30 days to a year, they want death loss to be less than 0.3 percent. B&H is achieving these goals, even when it includes culls in its death loss calculations.

B&H takes raising heifers for their clients seriously and wants to optimize genetic potential. “Our goal is to keep them healthy and growing without using antibiotics,” one B&H manager says. “We do this by intensively managing colostrum, nutrition and the environment of the calf.” He understands that a calf that has been treated multiple times will slow the growth and potential ability of that heifer to reach her optimal milk production later in life.


“Our clients put a lot of time and money into selecting the right genetics to achieve their production goals. We don’t want to be blamed for letting that heifer get sick and lowering her lifetime potential.”

Start with colostrum
B&H’s success starts at the dairy with getting newborn quality colostrum in a timely fashion. B&H picks up all colostrum from each dairy, then tests it and pasteurizes it at the calf ranch. It then delivers colostrum back to the dairies in 2-quart bottles, which are ready to feed. Calves get one bottle immediately after birth and a second bottle before being transferred off the dairy. Calves are picked up twice a day, and two more bottles of colostrum are fed at the calf ranch.

Testing total blood serum protein on every calf allows B&H to have a report card for each dairy. If a calf comes back with a value less than 6 g/dl, the dairy gets a call. B&H lets them know how critical this first step is for them to raise their heifers. They recently had a situation where the calves from one client were getting sick. Further investigation found out the crew was taking a short-cut and tubing all calves instead of letting them suckle. Once this was corrected, sickness decreased, B&H managers say. “Colostrum management is a big issue. And it is up to us to keep our clients focused on the importance of getting a calf started right.”

Test for PIs
Once at the calf ranch, calves are vaccinated, and an ear notch is taken for PI testing. The results come back the next business day. If the calf comes back positive, it is isolated and the dairy gets a call. B&H stopped picking up from one dairy because of the high numbers of PIs.

“If they don’t address the BVD problem at the dairy, we don’t want to keep raising the calves,” B&H managers say.

Many dairies think vaccination is controlling the formation of PIs. But B&H says they may be buying several of the PIs, and if not addressed, they will start having problems in their home herd.


All calves need to be tested, and B&H communicates this requirement to its clients. Getting rid of the PIs and continued testing is one of the key factors in keeping calves healthy without using excessive antibiotics. Before it started testing, B&H did not realize that a PI could be a “healthy looking” calf.

“We now know that PI calves spread the virus to other calves, if not sequestered. And we know PIs are immune-suppressed,” management says.

Because of its aggressive strategy, B&H treats about six of its 3,000 calves per day for illness. Scours is not an issue if the colostrum program is followed and the correct milk formulation is fed to the calf. This consistency is achieved by rigorous testing of solids and pasteurization of all milk fed.

After weaning
Once the calf is weaned, the ranch’s facilities, nutrition and social environment remain critical. B&H utilizes a nutritionist to balance the post-weaning ration to meet the heifer growth needs. The ranch aims to have heifers “ready to breed” when they get home. In my opinion, their high pregnancy rate on first service is evidence that they are doing it right. If dairies allow their heifers to be bred at a heifer development operation, they should require that pens be free of BVD PI animals. Even if you test, but another dairy doesn’t and has a PI heifer in a commingled breeding pen at a heifer facility, you increase your risk of bringing a heifer home that gives birth to a PI calf. This is how the majority of positive herds that I have worked with have acquired BVD problems.

Choose a premium heifer developer
Get accurate information about the operation where you are sending your heifers. Unfortunately a lot of dairies take the out-of sight, out-of mind approach. They grumble about feed costs and why fewer heifers are returned than they sent. I think it is important that dairies use premium heifer growers that require stringent guidelines for colostrum feeding, nutrition, animal welfare, vaccinations and biosecurity plans, including BVD PI testing. Test your facility by doing the following:

Visit the operation at least monthly. Look at the calves. Ask questions. Are the treatment cards full of shots? Are there a lot of empty hutches? Do the animals look comfortable?

As a dairyman, you select and produce genetics that will improve your herd. If the calf raiser does not share your desire to keep the animal healthy and productive, maybe it is time to look for a premium heifer developer. PD

Bruce Hoffman
Animal Profiling International, Inc.