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Top four nutritional strategies for early calving

Gene Boomer for Progressive Dairyman Published on 30 April 2019

Raising replacement heifers is one of the largest investments made on a dairy. The costs associated with heifer raising can represent up to 20 percent of milk production costs, making this line item one of the largest expenses for a dairy.

In today’s market conditions, not every heifer is automatically guaranteed a lactation career because the cost to raise a heifer could be as much as twice its worth if it were sold as a replacement heifer.



The cost to raise one replacement heifer can range from $1,800 to as high as $2,200, depending on your geographical location. That’s why successful operations prioritize heifer programs and focus on achieving an age at first calving younger than the national average and closer to 22 to 24 months old.

Nutrition is arguably the most expensive part of heifer raising. Thus, some producers may be tempted to cut costs on replacement heifer nutrition when milk prices are low. This short-term thinking could cause problems in the future. Not only can cutting corners on nutrition delay age at first calving, but it also impacts average daily gain (ADG), which correlates directly to the amount of milk the cow will produce in the first lactation.

Here are four nutritional strategies to help achieve earlier calving and prepare heifers to enter the milking herd.

1. Give calves a strong start

Because the first few months of a heifer’s life are critical to its performance, it’s important to support the heifer’s immune function during this time. At birth, the calf has limited immunity, so be sure to maintain hygienic conditions for the dam during parturition and for the calf during the first few days after birth.

This includes harvesting and delivering colostrum in a clean environment. Feed a quality colostrum with greater than 22 percent total solids and feed based on calf size – 10 percent of bodyweight.


2. Feed a high-quality diet to prevent disease

A higher-quality diet in pre-weaning calves results in fewer health events, lower treatment costs, fewer days to first breeding, fewer days on feed and a decreased cost per kilogram of gain. Whole milk is greater than 25 percent true protein and 28 percent fat on a dry matter basis. It’s important to mimic this ratio as closely as possible to achieve optimal growth in the first 90 days of a heifer’s life.

Another key ingredient in preparing heifers to calve by 24 months is reducing scours. Early calf scours is the cause of more than 56 percent of pre-weaned heifer deaths, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In addition to a high plane of nutrition to help the calf fight disease, a feed additive like refined functional carbohydrates (RFCs) has been shown to be efficacious in reducing scours caused by Cryptosporidium parvum and Eimeria as well as various types of E. coli and Salmonella enterica.

RFCs work by binding to receptors on harmful pathogens and preventing those pathogens from attaching to the calf’s intestinal wall and causing disease.

Heifers fed RFCs are better prepared to cope with their environment. The additive is also effective in reducing incidences of BRD. A healthy start can lead to increased weight gain by up to 3.6 kilograms by 60 days old while improving feed efficiency. In addition to slowing growth, calves that have scoured hurt the bulk tank.

For example, a 1,500-cow dairy we work with in western New York feeds RFCs to their calves and has seen heifer growth improve. RFCs help the dairy achieve its goals of Jerseys calving by 22 months and Holsteins calving by 23 to 24 months. A calf that doesn’t see a treatment protocol on the farm in the first four months performs better in the lactating herd than a treated animal.

A study from Cornell University supports the farm’s experience. The study showed calves treated with antibiotics gave 493 litres less milk during their first lactation than untreated calves. This decreased lactation response was attributed to nutrient partitioning away from growth functions to fight disease.


3. Gradually transition calves during weaning

After a successful calf program, transition calves slowly during weaning. Gradually taper down milk fed as calf starter intake begins to increase. Do not completely wean calves until they are consuming 2 kilograms of calf starter a day. This gradual taper helps drive grain intake and reduces stress on the weaning calf. Allow calves to stay in individual pens until they are consuming 3.6 kilograms starter grain mix.

Also remember to provide adequate amounts of clean water for weaning calves. A weaned Holstein calf requires 7.5 to 11 litres of water each day. Limited access to water can reduce ADG by 35 percent.

4. Avoid high-forage diet before 5 months old

After weaning, transition heifers out of the pre-weaned calf housing and into the heifer pens. Heifers in socialization or pen housing should receive a nutrient-dense diet. Continue to feed them calf starter grain mix for the first two weeks after their move to these new pens. Then introduce fine-chopped alfalfa hay or grass hay, fed as a TMR with the grain mix, for the next three weeks. Introduce a grower grain mix around 4 months old.

Avoid introducing corn silage, haylage or a low-quality hay before 5 months. Young ruminants cannot digest these roughages well, leading to reduced feed efficiency. While these feedstuffs might reduce the ration cost, they decrease average daily gain and increase cost per kilogram of gain.

Measure heifer weights and hip heights at this time to calculate the target gain needed to breed for calving by 24 months old. Even though heifers may reach adequate size on an intensive management program, do not breed Holsteins before 10 months old and Jerseys before 8 months.

Successfully navigating this growth phase has long-lasting effects on an operation, and it’s important for managers to focus on the cost per kilogram of gain instead of the cost per head per day. For more information about nutritional strategies to optimize heifer growth, reach out to your local nutritionist or calf and heifer specialist.  end mark

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Gene Boomer is with Arm & Hammer Animal and Food Production. Email Gene Boomer .