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An integrated approach to rearing which incorporates targeted nutrition with frequent monitoring and adjustment, and protocols to minimise disease risk, is likely to result in well grown, profitable heifers that remain productive herd members for years to come.
The importance of meeting target weights
In 2013 Dairy Australia estimated that the cost to rear heifers to the point of calving was between $1300 and $1500.
It is essential that this investment produces heifers with optimum fertility, productivity, and longevity once they enter the herd at the age of 24 months or less. If heifers meet the target weight of 85% of the herd’s mature cow weight by 24 months of age, they are more likely to:
Have increased fertility in their 1st joining
Have increased milk production
Transition better into the milking herd
Are less likely to be culled
If heifers are well grown when first being mated, they are more likely to have good fertility. This is particularly important if artificial insemination is used.
Once pregnant as maiden heifers, it is important that weight gains are continued through to their first calving. Dairy Australia’s Heifers on Target program states that:
“For a heifer calving 50 kg heavier than her herd mates there is an increase of 1041 litres of milk, 38.5 kg butterfat and 42.5 kg protein (81 kg MS) over the first three lactations. Depending on the farming system, this equates to an extra $400 to $500 in milk income per heifer”.
Defining target weights
Target weights for heifers are based on average mature cow weights. Since herds are genetically distinct, target weights have to be specific to each herd.
Estimate the average weight for the mature cows in your herd by weighing a proportion of them.
Use this information to create a target growth chart for your heifer herd.
After setting targets it is important to repeatedly monitor heifers by regularly weighing them and adjusting diets accordingly. This is likely to involve supplementation at some stage and may involving splitting the herd based on weights so that more targeted nutrition can be provided. Depending on the age of the heifers, supplements may need to provide different nutrients. For example, between weaning and 9 months of age, heifers require large amounts of protein and energy to support lean body growth, whilst older heifers should have a less nutrient dense diet to avoid the production of fat cells which may make calving more difficult.
In addition to supplying optimal nutrition, it is also essential to maintain optimal health so that heifers get the full potential of these nutrients. Diseases and parasites can cause setbacks in growth rates which may be difficult to compensate for by the time of joining at 13 to 15 months.
To prevent calf and heifer health issues, the following factors must be included in your rearing plans:
Best practice colostrum management
Preventing calf diseases such as scours and respiratory disease
Vaccinating for clostridial diseases and leptospirosis
Controlling intestinal parasites such as worms and coccidia.