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Turner’s Heifer Haven: Measure it, manage it, adapt

Progressive Dairyman Editor Jenna Hurty Published on 20 August 2015

Denis Turner“Any contract is only as good as the two parties involved,” Denis Turner, owner of Turner’s Heifer Haven, says.

The operation, located in Hartville, Missouri, is a pasture-based 540-head heifer-raising facility. Turner has raised heifers for both confinement and grazing dairies.

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At times, he has had as many as 900 head on his intensive grazing operation; however, that is max capacity for his 300 acres. But Turner’s Heifer Haven has not always been Turner’s Heifer Haven.

See more of Turner’s Heifer Haven in this slideshow.

In 1994, the University of Missouri – Columbia hired Turner to help with a demonstration project. They were to develop one group of dairy heifers on Kentucky 31 fescue and another on a mixture of orchardgrass and alfalfa with minimal fescue involvement.

At the end of the two-year project, they compared the two groups to see the pros and cons of each method. Eleven dairies had provided animals for the project. Afterwards, a few of them approached Turner about raising heifers for them on a contract basis. They said these animals looked better than anything they’d ever raised. Turner accepted their proposal, and Turner’s Heifer Haven was born.

Turner says a majority of his customers use him as an intermediate expansion, where he raises their heifer supply for the duration of five years while they build their herd and expand their operation. But being flexible and adapting to the circumstances you are given is an important part of running a business. After all, “when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade,” Turner says.

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For instance, this past spring, one of Turner’s customers sold his dairy, and the new owners already had other arrangements for their heifers. Turner did not find out until right before grazing season, when everything is already set for the year. Now instead of 800-plus heifers, he would only have 540. It was time to make lemonade.

Turner took down a few cross-fences and made baleage. As a result, he likely won’t need to buy his winter forage this year.

For Turner, being flexible is not only important in how he runs his business but also in how he works with his customers. Each dairy he raises for has its own, written contract. This clearly outlines what each party expects of the other.

“It’s a function of setting protocols and setting gain targets and everything,” Turner says. “Once you’ve got those set up, you just meet those criteria as a heifer grower.”

If dairies fail to make their payments, he reserves the right to sell animals to meet that payment. If the dairy would like to make changes, Turner is willing to work with them; however, it is a change in their contract. Depending on what the change is and how well it fits into his protocols, Turner may increase the price accordingly.

Some of the dairies drop the heifers off as early as 6 months old while others wait until the heifers are a little older. The dairy supplies Turner with a detailed list of what the heifers are vaccinated for so he knows where to pick up on the heifer’s vaccination schedule. However, before the dairy can drop the animals off, they must be BVD- and PI-tested.

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All animals are quarantined for 30 to 45 days upon arrival. This gives Turner a chance to monitor the animals for signs of sickness and, if necessary, bring them up to speed on their vaccinations. In general, he has very few issues since the dairies are good about preparing their animals to move because they both know “preparation is worth its weight in gold,” Turner says.

Pre-breeding is the next major check-in for the heifers. At this point, they receive any boosters they need according to protocols.

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Breeding time is another point where Turner needs to be flexible in order to meet the goals set forth by each dairy. Turner starts breeding heifers at 55 to 60 percent of their mature weight. He requires each dairy to supply their own semen and, if they choose, clean-up bulls. Usually, Turner will synch the animals for A.I. using MGA and a prostaglandin shot.

However, if the dairy uses sexed semen, he allows the heifers to cycle naturally. This process also varies depending on the type of dairy he’s raising for. Confinement dairies want cows calving year-round, whereas grazing dairies tend to prefer to have a calving season giving them a much tighter breeding window.

With synched A.I., Turner averages 70 percent pregnant on first service, and 93 percent are pregnant after three services. After that, he sends in the clean-up bull to catch as many as he can. Some dairies are particular about which bulls each heifer is bred to, while others are less specific. Turner accommodates for this so the dairies can improve their herds as they see fit.

The dairies pick the heifers up a couple of months prior to calving. Most of them pick the animals up prior to Dec. 1, when the winter feeding starts and prices increase.

Throughout this process, Turner is monitoring the animals closely. He does this in a variety of ways, the most important of which is observation. Every weekend, his hired hand has time off, and it’s Turner’s job to feed the heifers. Instead of just dumping the feed and driving away, Turner steps back and watches them.

He takes notes and looks for animals who aren’t competing for bunk space, sick animals, underconditioned animals and anything else that could be a sign an animal isn’t thriving like it should. In addition, he closely monitors the heifers’ weights and any inputs.

“If you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” Turner says. “When you measure it, then you know where you’ve got to go. You’ve got to give the animal the opportunity to express their genetic potential, but you’ve also got to give the manager the opportunity to express his potential, too. If he doesn’t have facts and figures and numbers in front of him, he can’t effectively do that.”

But most importantly, Turner maintains an open line of communication between parties. If their heifers have issues when they arrive, he talks with the dairy to learn what went wrong and how they can improve in the future. Likewise, when the dairies take their animals back, they talk with him about any problems they see and work out a solution.

Once a month, Turner sends the dairy a report on their animals, and the dairy is always welcome to visit and check on their animals. However, after the first year, Turner says the dairies tend to check in less and less frequently as they gain confidence in Turner’s ability to raise a quality animal.

At the end of the day, it’s all about the heifers and creating an environment where they can thrive.

“There are lots of different types of arrangements that dairies have with their growers,” Turner says. “It can be spelled out in a dozen different ways. As long as it’s written down and everybody understands what the process is, that’s the important part – that we don’t sacrifice the animal and the animal’s health in the process.” PD

PHOTOS: Photos by Jenna Hurty.

Jenna Hurty
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