In a previous article, I reviewed best management practices to raise a calf from a newborn to a bred heifer. By paying attention to these common practices, it produces a strong, healthy animal and saves many dollars in fewer treatment costs and more economical feed efficiency.
As the bred heifer approaches her first calving, there are a few more areas to pay close attention to. Up until this time, she has cost you a lot of money and she is almost ready to start making a return on your investment. With a little care, she will not only more than pay back your investment, but will also return a nice profit. Too many times, we tend to forget all we have invested in this valuable resource. It is too easy to give up on this age group and accept mediocrity before she has even returned an ounce of milk.
3 areas to watch
There are three main areas to keep a close eye on as she approaches delivery of her first calf.
First of all, the heifer should be less than two years of age when she is due to calve. This is a very easy parameter to measure. Many, many herds miss this important guideline. In fact, according to DHIA, the national average age at first calving is approximately 26 months. Every day over 24 months is costing you extra feed to feed the heifer and the loss of milk production. This loss can add up quickly in a herd.
The second area that is often overlooked is heifer nutrition in the third trimester of gestation. Corn silage is a very accessible and common feed here in Ohio, and very easy to feed to late-term heifers. This overfeeding of energy and underfeeding of protein will lead to an overly fat heifer with a very large calf. The size of the unborn calf increases dramatically if overfed high energy in the last trimester of her gestation. This overweight condition will also lead to a difficult delivery, which often results in a dead calf and leads into poor performance as a first-calf heifer. It may even result in loss of life of the heifer and her calf — and all of the investment is gone. On the flip side, an underfed heifer will produce a weak calf and could end up immunesuppressed. Take a look at your first-calf heifer cull rate. If you lose over 10 percent of your first-calf heifers in their first lactation, you should examine the late-term pre-calving nutrition.
Multiple pen changes are the third important factor to consider in the health of the heifer. The more the heifer changes pens, the more problems to expect from her. Keeping the heifer on a steady diet with the same pen mates will increase her chances for a successful transition to the milking herd. Often times, the heifer is moved from the heifer grower or growing pen to a pre-fresh group to a fresh pen to a milking group. The heifer should have minimal moves as she moves to a maternity pen for her calving and then moved to a fresh cow group — or better yet a heifer-only group for her early introduction to the milking herd. I commonly see heifers thrown in with a group of dry cows to wait their freshening, and then after they are fresh added to a group of mature cows to begin their milking experience. This competition with older mature cows for bunk space and free-stall space often turns out badly, leading to increased incidence of ketosis, metritis, twisted stomachs, feet that are damaged from not laying down, and decreased milk production. An overweight older heifer that is mixed in with an over-crowded group of mature cows will lead to disaster.
Return on investment
By paying attention to these little details, it will save a lot on treatment costs and will give a return on your investment. It costs just as much or more to properly raise a heifer than it is to go out and buy one. So if you are not going to do it correctly, you may as well go out and buy a pregnant heifer. But there is nothing more satisfying than seeing some of the daughters of your favorite cows entering the herd and making a significant return to your investment.
Mel Wenger is a veterinarian and owner of the Orrville Veterinary Clinic, Inc., a seven-doctor mixed animal practice in Orrville, Ohio.