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Economic ways to improve dairy heifer efficiency

Dave Lindevig Published on 21 July 2015

While growing up on a small dairy in western Wisconsin, I was primarily responsible for feeding the heifers. My dad would always delegate the poorer forage to this group of animals and did not pay much attention to their performance or even balance their rations.

This practice was common on most dairy farms at the time and is still common today. However, these animals are the future of the dairy and should be considered an investment, not an expense. Providing heifers with quality nutrition, including probiotics, is the most economical for the farm in the long term.

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The main goal in raising a replacement heifer is to get her into the lactating group within 22 to 24 months. For every month beyond the target calving date, the operation is losing approximately $100. There is also an added benefit to calving within those dates, which is an increase in the inventory of cows available to the dairy. This allows for increased lactating performance per cow and more aggressive culling.

The target daily rate of gain should be 1.8 to 2 pounds per day for Holsteins and 1.3 to 1.5 pounds per day for Jerseys. The height of the heifer should also be monitored since the additional fat will create problems at freshening. The target height should be 54 inches at the withers for a post-calving Holstein and 49 inches for a post-calving Jersey.

There are a number of key management times in the life of a replacement dairy heifer, including birth, vaccination, weaning, de-worming, breeding, pregnancy check and calving. The heifer is challenged during each of these situations, and as a result, her good microbial population in the gut is compromised.

Probiotics help her to repopulate the lost beneficial bacteria in her digestive system. The addition of good microbes will help keep the dry matter intake up during these challenges and avoid the weight gain slump that usually follows. Increased dry matter intake supports the animal’s immune system to ward off disease naturally, which will save the dairy money by decreasing the need for antibiotics.

Since feed comprises 60 percent of the investment in a replacement heifer, the animals need to be closely monitored so that those not making the targets can be separated out and given additional nutrition. Probiotics and enhanced nutrition can be economically fed to get this group back within the target range; to administer feed changes to the whole group would not be cost-effective. Once back within the target parameters, the heifer can be moved back to the group.

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There should also be some attention paid to either very cold or very hot weather conditions. During this time, probiotics should be fed to the entire group to mitigate some of the challenges associated with each extreme.

In conclusion, if the dairy operation implements an adequate heifer nutrition plan and monitors the performance of their dairy heifer program, they should see significant improvements in the profit per cow. Probiotics can help improve efficiencies of replacement heifers and reduce the lag that typically results from the daily challenges these animals face. We have to remember that we are microbial farmers, and if we can feed the microbes properly, we will see increased profits for the operation. PD

Dave Lindevig is a national accounts manager at Vets Plus Inc. with more than 20 years of experience in ruminant nutrition.

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