Early Care of Heifers Yields Lifetime of Benefits

In UW-Extension Central Wisconsin Agriculture Specialization’s April 2015 Newsletter, UW-Extension Wood County Dairy & Livestock Agent Matt Lippert shares how early care of heifers yields lifetime of benefits.

There was a time when a minimum cost program was promoted for calves. Moderate to low intakes of milk replacer encouraged calves to more aggressively take to dry starter feed. Grains are much less expensive than milk products and were thought to lower the cost of raising a replacement. Milk replacer programs provided less protein and fat to the calf than did milk, but were adequate for calf survival. Calves grew more slowly than their potential and were at risk due to low body fat reserves and energy intake if they scoured, went off feed or were exposed to extreme weather conditions.

After many years of focusing on the low input approach, higher milk product intake has been revisited. Much higher gain was observed preweaning. It was found that even if at 6 months of age the weights of calves on the two separate programs were similar the performance at first lactation and lifetime favored calves that were allowed higher milk product intakes (2,200# advantage in first three lactations, Cornell).

These new programs are not without their own challenges. Calves prefer milk replacer and do not aggressively begin calf starter intake, the high energy programs do not allow for inconsistencies in mixing or being mixed with too little water and too many solids. It is more critical to make sure calves have access to fresh water all year long. The high energy programs are more expensive per day. You must use a milk replacer made for this, you can’t just feed more or mix more powder in the water using a conventional milk replacer.

Utilizing these programs Holstein heifers can calve at one year ten months of age and weigh 1250-1300 pounds (1.8 pounds of gain per day), and they can have adequate frame -skeleton and muscle not fat. Calves can double their weight from birth to 7 week weaning age and not be fat. Similar early growth can be accomplished with pasteurized milk instead of milk replacer, although it is often supplemented with vitamins, minerals and/or medications.

The large effects in mature animals that can be traced to care during the first weeks of life have opened up much more study. Additional benefits have been found in some trials when calves are fed three times a day instead of twice, even if the same amounts of milk solids are consumed. Some recent studies have shown benefit to feeding colostrum beyond the first 24 hours, even if the antibodies are no longer absorbed into the blood stream. Immune system development is more difficult to measure than milk production, but it appears that the increased production as a mature animal as a result of neonatal feeding and care is in part related to improved immune system development.

A key component of the success of higher nutrition for newborn calves is a successful transition at weaning. To promote rumen development grain intake from starter and grower is more important than early availability of hay.

Dairy replacement heifers are not like animals being finished for slaughter in a feed lot. Even with emphasis on high nutrient quality and intake immediately after birth allowing for early calving, replacement heifers need only gain 1.8 pounds per day to reach adequate size well before two years of age. Their potential weight gains if fed high concentrate diets are much higher. High forage programs including high quality pasture can be utilized to develop these heifers. Research at the UW has shown benefits in health and performance when heifers have grazed.

Surveys indicate that dairy producers are freshening replacements at a younger age. Some producers with high producing herds now successfully have nearly all replacements freshening by two years of age. It is not necessary to breed animals to calve earlier than one year nine months to accomplish this. First lactation production is often much lower when replacements calve extremely early. Well managed and fertile heifers can nearly all conceive within a three month window from one year ten months to two years of age.  Reduced total rearing costs, reduced manure production from replacements, higher lifetime production and improved immunological status are all positive life time benefits of care given to calves before they are weaned.

For more information on calf management, please visit UW-Extension Dairy Calf & Heifer Management.

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