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Heifers: An investment in your herd’s future

Gene Boomer Published on 20 July 2011

The investment made in young heifers today lays the groundwork for future herd performance and profitability. Heifers are a group of animals that may be overlooked at a time of tight margins.

However, when their needs go unmet, growth, health and, ultimately, lifetime production can all be negatively impacted. The long-term consequences of cutting expenses in the heifer pen are a huge price to pay for small reductions in rearing costs.

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There are producers doing it right – investing in their heifer pens for earlier breeding and calving, leading to greater milk production. Raising heifers to their potential is something Aardema Dairy of Wendell, Idaho, has valued in an effort to achieve optimal herd performance, starting with their young calves.

Aardema Dairy lays the groundwork for success
Aardema Dairy is home to 54,000 head of Holstein and Jersey cattle, split among seven facilities. Six facilities and the dairy’s calf ranch are managed by Jordan Leak, who has been involved with the dairy for the past six years. With 25,000 heifers, Aardema Dairy depends on maintaining a top-notch nutrition and management program to reach rearing goals.

Aardema’s dedication to raising exceptional heifers starts at birth. All calves are born in one of two maternity facilities and receive high-quality colostrum soon after birth. Managers of these facilities are responsible for colostrum feeding, an essential practice to develop a healthy immune system and lay the foundation for calf and heifer success.

Once calves reach the Aardema calf ranch, they are fed pasteurized milk fortified to meet a minimum of 16 percent solids, 26 percent crude protein and 20 percent fat.

“Feeding milk with consistent nutrients allows for uniformity across our calves and heifers,” Leak says. “We continually test milk and compensate with powder when needed to deliver the nutrients our calves need.”

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Another essential part of the calf diet is high-quality protein.

“Delivering sufficient amounts of protein to our calves is a major player in our nutrition program,” Leak explains. “Protein allows our heifers to develop successfully, with optimal frame size and body condition.”

Management practices are also key to success in Aardema’s heifer-raising program. Daily monitoring and testing is completed on the calf ranch and allows issues to be handled properly and in a timely manner. Blood samples are taken daily from one of every three calves and tested for serum protein, which Aardema strives to maintain above 5.5 mg per dl plasma protein.

Calves are weighed at each move on the calf ranch and monitored to confirm they are meeting average daily gain goals set by Aardema. Furthermore, throughout each stage of the heifer-raising program, morbidities and mortalities are tracked and recorded to ensure incidence is minimized.

Long-term benefits realized
Heifers raised using consistent, high-quality nutrition and management have proven to benefit both the dairy’s productivity and profitability. The outstanding benefits realized have made the extra time, money and effort that go into Aardema’s heifer-raising program worthwhile.

• Reproductive potential – Aardema heifers reach breeding size sooner, can be bred earlier and are confirmed pregnant with fewer services, the result of heifers meeting optimal growth targets.

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• Improved production – Heifers are able to enter the milking herd at an earlier age and first-lactation animals have proven to be more productive and profitable.

• Healthy animals in surplus – With improved, proactive management and nutrition practices, calves have minimal incidences of diseases, which saves money and labor on treatment programs. With more healthy animals, the herd has excess females, which are sold as replacements to generate additional revenue.

Three keys to a profitable heifer program
Aardema Dairy has realized the future of their herds lies within their heifers. When everything is done right and positive results are realized, it comes down to three core principles that lead to their success:

• Feeding a high-quality ration – Aardema’s nutrition program strives to provide high-quality protein in a balanced diet. When fed a commercial rumen fermentation enhancer, heifers achieved volumetric growth – increasing size without overconditioning – allowing them to be bred sooner and reach the milking herd earlier.

• Consistency – Managers of the maternity barns are responsible for starting calves off with the best colostrum and management practices to set the stage for success throughout their lifetime. This consistency continues throughout the calf feeding program, creating uniform heifers.

• Teamwork and accountability – Leak explains that Aardema’s calf ranch requires teamwork to be managed successfully. All members of the dairy’s team – the employees, veterinarian, nutritionist and outside consultants – work together for the success of the heifer-raising program.

When it comes to cutting costs during tight times, the future of your herd should not be the first place to look, says Leak. He believes any potential savings in heifer ration costs will be spent somewhere else – treatments, additional breedings, unrealized production potential or lost profitability.

“When you skimp on properly raising calves and heifers, you will pay for it down the road,” says Leak. “We invest in our herd at a young age, which decreases treatment costs throughout the animal’s life and allows them to generate more profits for our operation.” PD

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Dr. Gene Boomer
Field Technical Services Manager
Arm & Hammer Animal Nutrition

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