If you raise heifers, you know you’re working with thin profit margins. And with thin profit margins, when one little thing goes wrong — for example, average daily gain drops off — it can quickly decrease your profit, or even turn your return into a negative.

By learning to use heifer-management records, you can help protect those margins and keep your heifers on track. Here are three ways to put heifer-management records to use on your dairy:

1. Monitor performance goals

Jack Banker routinely weighs the heifers he raises at Banker Scenic View Farm in Black Creek, Wis. The data tell him whether or not the animals achieve an average daily gain of 1.8 pounds per day — a growth goal he has established on his 850-head heifer-raising operation.

By weighing the heifers, “we’re (able to) monitor our feeding program all the time,” Banker adds. If the records show the animals aren’t performing as they should, he adjusts the ration accordingly.

Don Gardner also uses the data from his heifer-management records to monitor heifer performance.

Gardner, a veterinarian and custom heifer grower from Huddleston, Va., generates a reproductive report that shows the conception rate for each bull used at Gardner Custom Heifer Raising. It also shows the conception rate for each bull stud and the conception rate across the entire farm. He uses the records to make sure the farm’s 70-percent conception rate stays on track.

Like Banker and Gardner, you too can use the data from heifer-management records to assess heifer performance and monitor the goals you’ve set for them.

How you will use heifer records on your dairy depends on your goals. Typical heifer-performance goals include mortality rate, average daily gain, age at first breeding, conception rate and age at first calving. Once your goals are in place, decide how frequently you will record performance data, and how often you will use those data to evaluate your heifers’ performance.

For example, Banker identified an average daily gain of 1.8 pounds per head per day as one of the goals for his operation. To monitor that goal, he weighs each heifer upon arrival and at each change of feed location. Banker uses this growth information to evaluate the heifers’ performance at each move. Plus, he includes growth performance in a report as requested for each client.

Make management decisions
Use your heifer-management records to make management decisions.

David Fisher, Mapleview Farm, Madrid, N.Y., uses heifer-growth records to tweak his heifers’ nutrition program. To do so, he weighs each heifer on a monthly basis. From that information, Fisher generates a report for each pen that shows him average daily gain from birth and average daily gain since the last time he weighed each pen of heifers. Then, he uses those data in conjunction with body condition scoring to evaluate heifer-grouping strategies and make ration adjustments on the 1,125-head dairy.

Roger Imdieke also uses records to make management decisions at Dairy Progeny Management, his 1,150-head heifer-raising operation in New London, Minn. Imdieke uses records on heifer growth rates to make breeding decisions.

For example, when heifers reach about 12 months of age, he records a pre-breeding weight and height for each animal. The information tells him if those heifers are on track to meet a target breeding weight and age usually 825 to 850 pounds at 13 months of age. Every two weeks, Imdieke generates a breeding report from this information. He uses it to see which heifers are ready to move to the breeding pen and which ones 13 months or older still haven’t moved to the breeding pen.

And, consider using heifer-management records to make culling decisions, like Fisher does at Mapleview Farm in northern New York. He keeps health records for each calf on the dairy. When calves reach two to four months of age, Fisher uses those records to cull poor-doers.

Deciding which heifer-management records to keep can be a bit overwhelming. To help you get started, please see “Keep these heifer-management records” on page 32.

2. Troubleshoot problems

In addition to making management decisions and monitoring goals, you also can use heifer records to help you track down the source of a problem in your heifer-raising program.

This is one way they use records at CalfSource LLC in DePere, Wis., says Lewis Anderson, business unit manager at the 6,700-head calf-raising operation.

Upon arrival, they measure serum blood protein levels from randomly selected calves as a way to identify if the calf received a sufficient amount of colostrum, Anderson says. Each customer receives a report that includes this information. Plus, each customer records newborn-calf information, such as the time colostrum was fed and who fed the calf. With this information in hand, the producer can spot problems in newborn-calf management, such as inadequate colostrum-feeding practices.

The findings may reveal someone isn’t feeding newborn calves enough colostrum, or the calves aren’t getting colostrum within the first few hours after birth, Anderson says. Knowing this allows the producer to correct problem areas. 

Selecting a few key performance indicators that you will routinely monitor can help you determine when a problem surfaces, allow you to track down the cause, and quickly correct it.

Troubleshooting problems isn’t just about waiting for the big blowup to occur, and then working your way backward through the records to see if you can determine the cause. Troubleshooting means you use the records as early-warning signs to help identify problems before they get out of hand, thereby limiting losses and helping to keep your heifers and your business on track. 

3. Get started

Don’t let yourself become overwhelmed by the amount of information that you could collect and keep on your heifers. Instead, work with your veterinarian or other trusted consultants to determine a starting point for using heifer records on your dairy. Decide how you want to use the information — to monitor performance, make management decisions, troubleshoot problems — and then determine which records you need to keep to help meet that goal.

Keep these heifer-management records

Heifer-management records don’t have to be complex. Start with a few simple records, then branch out as you become comfortable using them.

Here are three common records you might consider keeping to help you manage your heifers:

  • Basic animal identification. Record birth date, sire and dam identification, ear tag number or other form of identification.
  • Growth performance data. Track weight gain, height and body condition scores.
  • Breeding information. Record heat detections, number of services per animal, technician’s name and results of pregnancy checks.