Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

Benchmark to improve performance of heifer replacements

Donald E. Sanders Published on 30 April 2013

Editor’s note: The following is an edited excerpt from Dr. Donald E. Sanders’ book “Raising Heifer Replacements – Doc’s Way,” published in 2012 by Vaca Resources.

A wise client recently told me that if you are going to succeed in the dairy business, you must be 100 percent better than neighboring dairy farms – that is, 5 percent better in each of 20 different management skills.



Benchmarking is one of the 5 percent items. It is a valuable tool that enables a dairyman to check how the operation is doing compared to past performance or the performance of other similar operations.

I didn’t realize how valuable benchmarking was until three similar dairies, one for which I provide service, started comparing notes with each other.

They each set goals for themselves. Two of the dairies were local and the third was in Texas, so they didn’t face quite the same management factors and challenges. Yet they were still able to engage in a little friendly competition.

Keeping records is important for any operation, especially when it comes to raising calves. Steve Hayes, veterinarian with Day 1 Technology in Winona, Minnesota, recommends the following:

• Set up a record system that allows you to compare performance from year to year or month to month. Check past performance to current performance regularly.


• Start gradually if your record-keeping experience is limited. Start by keeping track of the simple things, such as mortality.

Death is a pretty easy event to observe and document. So when a calf dies, record it. Another key statistic is growth rate. This can be tracked simply by recording trailer weights when calves move from individual pens to group pens, or when they move from one facility to another.

Start recording today and do it consistently. “Making good management decisions requires good records,” Hayes says.

• And once you have a records system in place, monitor the results. Set a regular time to review the data. This could be weekly, monthly or quarterly. Annually is not often enough. If you choose monthly, mark the review time on your calendar and make it an important part of your work schedule.

From birth to 6 months old
In the following, I list key benchmarks you should track for each of your calves in its first six months. With this I include recommended calf care and management practices – along with recommended targets to attain.

Mortality – Given that some calves are born with a heartbeat and breath, yet die shortly after birth, 24 hours old is recommended for distinguishing between “dead-on-arrival” (stillbirth) and “calf mortality.”


• All newborn calves should be placed in an environment segregated and safe from adult animals and the diseases they carry.

• Every newborn calf should receive preventive care, including administration of adequate colostrum and treatment of the navel to control infection.

• Suggested target mortality rates are:

• 24 hours to 60 days old: less than 5 percent

• 61 to 120 days old: less than 2 percent

• 121-180 days old: less than 1 percent

Morbidity – Morbidity refers to the number of animals that develop a disease or condition as a percentage of the total number exposed.

• Target morbidity rates for scours, which is defined as a case of diarrhea that requires intervention for more than 24 hours:

• 24 hours to 60 days old: less than 25 percent

• 61 to 120 days old: less than 2 percent

• 121 to 180 days old: less than 1 percent

• Target morbidity rates for pneumonia, which is defined as a case of respiratory disease that requires individual animal treatment with an antibiotic (does not include use of feed-grade medication administered through the ration):

• 24 hours to 60 days old: less than 10 percent

• 61 to 120 days old: less than 15 percent

• 121 to 180 days old: less than 2 percent

Growth rate – Target growth rate standards for Holstein calves are:

• 24 hours to 60 days old: Double birthweight

• 61 to 120 days old: 2.2-lb maximum average daily gain

• 121 to 180 days old: Two-lb average daily gain

Colostrum management – Colostrum equaling 10 percent of bodyweight should be fed in the
first four hours of life. For example,
a 90-lb calf should receive four quarts of colostrum. Colostrum quality:

• Should be free of blood, debris and mastitis

• Should be disease-free:

• Test for quality with a Brix refractometer, colostrum tester or IgG RIA test

• Target bacteria count (also known as standard plate count): less than 100,000 CFU per mL

Target immunity level of animals at 2 to 7 days old is:

• Blood serum total protein of more than 5.2 g per dL for maternal-source colostrum-fed calves

• Serum immunoglobulin of more than 10.0 g per L

Nutrition – Structure your nutrition program to achieve optimum health and growth and monitor performance regularly:

• Consult your veterinarian and nutritionist routinely. Special products are available to cost-effectively boost performance.

• Clean water and starter grain should be offered to calves with continuous availability by 3 days old, and refreshed or replenished daily.

Housing – Target housing standards for calves 24 hours to 60 days old:

• Clean

• Dry

• Draft-free

• Good air quality

• Sized so calf can turn around

Target housing standards for calves 61 to 120 days old in addition to housing standard listed previously:

• Minimum of 34 square feet of resting space per animal

• Adequate feeding space so all animals can eat at the same time

Target housing standards for calves 121 to 180 days old are similar to those I just described, plus:

• Calves should each have a minimum of 42 square feet of resting space in bedded-pack housing.

• Animals in freestall housing should each have a separate stall.

Benchmarking weight is not enough
The ultimate goal of careful benchmarking and management practices is to produce well-grown heifers that join the milking string earlier – an economic boon to the dairy operation.

Measuring weight only is not a reliable measure of calf and heifer development. Structural development is just as important, if not more so. A heifer’s greatest capacity for frame growth is in the first six months (see Chapters 5 and 6 of “Raising Heifer Replacements – Doc’s Way”).

Target weights and size for breeding and calving are based on percentages of mature size (size of the animal at third calving). Heifers should be at 55 percent of mature weight and 89 percent of their mature height at breeding.

At first calving, heifers should have reached 82 percent of their mature weight and 96 percent of their mature size. Weigh heifers every three months. You’ll find that there is too much discrepancy if you weigh heifers only at weaning, at 6 months and then again at breeding. By 13 to 15 months old, strive to achieve:

• Weight of 825 to 900 pounds

• Wither height of more than 51 inches (127 cm, or 55 percent of the weight of mature cows in the herd)

• Weight just before calving of 1,350 lb (615 kg) for large breeds or 85 percent of the weight of full-term, pregnant, mature cows

The biggest mistake is to delay breeding until after heifers have reached appropriate size. When a heifer is bred late, her frame size is likely to peak a few months before calving. Heifers that have been bred late tend to put on extra pounds and become fat before calving.

Research data shows that heifers grown on an accelerated program have no more dystocias, or difficult calvings, than those on normal nutrition programs.

According to Bob Corbett, a veterinary expert in Utah, 15 percent of heifers on an accelerated nutrition program will reach appropriate height by 10 months old. Forty percent will reach appropriate height by 11 months and the remainder by 12 months.

Evaluate the underachievers at 400 lbs (180 kg). The option is to cull them or, perhaps, market them. Heifers removed from the program often will bring current prevailing market prices with no discount.

The case for adopting an accelerated heifer-growing program

• The culling rate in many 1,000-cow herds is 35 percent.

• 350 heifers will be needed annually to replace cows that have died or have been sold for market beef.

• Assume 500 heifers are born annually, but there is a 15 percent death loss from birth to calving.

• 425 heifers are available for replacements.

• Calving at 20 months takes four months off replacement heifer growing time.

• Heifers enter the herd 16 percent sooner.

• 54 more heifers are available for replacements.

• Target body condition score at freshening is 3.5 on a five-point scale.

Target resting space for yearlings

• 12 to 18 months old: 50 square feet (4.6 m2) per head, or one freestall per animal

• 18 months old to two to four weeks pre-freshening: 60 square feet (5.6 m2) per head, or one freestall per animal

• Two to four weeks pre-freshening: 100 square feet (9.3 m2), or one freestall per animal

• Target freestall space

• 6 to 9 months old: 30 x 54 inches

• 9 to 12 months old: 34 x 60 inches

• 12 to 18 months old: 36 x 69 inches

• 18 months old to two to four weeks pre-freshening: 40 x 84 inches

• Two to four weeks pre-freshening: 43 x 96 inches

The desired rate of gain can be benchmarked by taking current weight and setting desired weight at breeding. Divide by the number of days to determine the rate of gain needed to reach that. Here is a tip that makes it easier:

• Place marks on gates, fence posts or headlocks to compare heifer hip heights

It may be boring to read the stats your heifers should achieve at various stages of production. However, you can make it interesting when you and other heifer growers commit to getting together over lunch to compare notes about various aspects of your enterprises.

Once you establish this relationship, perhaps on occasion you can invite an outside expert to join you to discuss issues affecting your operations and provide advice. PD


Donald E. Sanders
Associate Professor
Ohio State University