Dairy heifer care needs re-examined

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WOOSTER, Ohio – Farmers have taken great strides in recent years to improve calf health, rethinking comfort, colostrum, and cleanliness.
But then these good-looking calves become heifers and the same farmers cram them in pens with wet bedding and inadequate water.
This comes from dairy nutritionist Matt Gabler, who says heifer care directly impacts later milk production.
Many farmers just don’t put that extra effort into heifer care, he told producers at the Professional Dairy Heifer Growers Northeast Regional Conference in Wooster last month.
Enlisting help. It all correlates, he said. How you treat the calves will impact their productivity. How you treat the heifers will impact their productivity. And how you treat cows impacts their productivity. You can’t ignore one of these stages and expect high production, he said.
Most of all, he said, farmers need a plan and a nutritionist can help.
Farmers aren’t paying a nutritionist just for feed, they’re paying for a program, Gabler said. That program should include heifers, he emphasized.
Make it known that heifer care is a priority. Nutritionists have the knowledge to help, but farmers are often more interested in calves and cows, Gabler said.
Require nutritionists to map out a plan for heifers’ needs and outline goals for each heifer group.
Farmers see their heifers every day, which is good, but a nutritionist will offer another perspective or second opinion, he said.
Measurement. Measuring results is essential to heifer care, Gabler said, and it goes beyond just measuring body weight. Farmers should watch this, but too much emphasis is placed on it, he said.
Instead, begin looking at hoof health and other elements usually reserved for cows.
“Why aren’t we doing manure scoring on heifers?” Gabler asked; it’s important that heifers are digesting nutrients, too.
When the nutritionist is checking the cows’ feed bunk for signs of sorting, have him or her check the heifers’ feed as well.
Also, look at body condition and overall appearance, he said. Are the heifers alert? Are they relaxed? How do their coats look?
Then, most importantly, do something with this information, Gabler said.
“Use it to improve productivity and profitability,” he said. “Ask yourself, ‘How can we improve heifers for their lactating lives?'”
‘Eating machines.’ Heifers are “eating machines,” but if farmers want good, well-structured animals, consider limiting their intake, Gabler said.
Knowing dry matter intake is a must for cows, but it’s also important for heifers. It’s hard to balance their diet if you don’t know their dry matter intake, he said.
Heifers need 100 percent feeding space and the facilities need to serve both hungry heifers and those that hang back. Also, give them something to do other than eat, like balls or a pasture to walk, Gabler recommended.
Be sure to have good grouping practices. These may vary from farm to farm, he said, depending on facilities and labor.
The most important thing with grouping is to have a plan so you later know what needs changed in order to improve, Gabler said.
Priorities. Replacement heifers are too expensive not to make heifer management a priority, he said.
The goal is to have cows who live a long life, produce a lot of milk and are profitable, he said.
Paying particular attention to both calves and heifers sets the stage to reach this goal.
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 23 or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

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