You would never think of shipping milk without recording the volume of milk that leaves your dairy. After all, your milk check depends on it.

The motivation to keep records begins and ends with your bottom-line. “We tend to keep records on the areas of our business that make us money,” says Roger Cady, dairy technical specialist at Monsanto Dairy Business.

That’s why management records exist for the lactating herd — the traditional profit center of a dairy. However, heifers often fail to find their way into the record-keeping system — largely because they are viewed as a cost.

“Heifers should not be viewed as a cost, but rather as an investment,” Cady says.

While it takes time to monitor and record heifer performance, keeping heifer-management records isn’t a waste of time, but rather a way to nurture an important investment. Here are four compelling reasons to keep heifer-management records.

Part of managing a growing business
The size of dairy operations continues to grow. According to a USDA report released in September 2002, the number of dairy operations with more than 500 cows climbed 20 percent between 1997 and 2001.

Gone are the days when you could walk past a group of heifers and recall each animal’s history off the top of your head. As herd size increases, it is becoming “more difficult to keep track of individual animals,” notes Curt Taylor with TSE Computer Assistance, a Litchfield, Minn., company that developed Hfr Dot Dat, a heifer-management software program.

The importance of good record keeping increases as your business grows. After all, you wouldn’t rely on your memory to manage the cows. It should be no different with your heifers either.

Keeps your goals on track
The goal of most heifer-raising programs is to achieve a target age and weight at first calving. For most producers, an age at first calving of 22 to 24 months yields healthy, productive heifers that achieve maximum profitability.

Heifer-management records are important because they tell you how well your heifers are doing at meeting the goals you’ve established.

Roger Imdieke, custom heifer grower from New London, Minn., manages the 1,150 heifers on his operation with that premise in mind. “Like the old saying goes, you can’t manage what you can’t measure,” Imdieke says.

So, Imdieke measures heifer growth rates at five key stages — post-weaning, puberty, pre-breeding, at pregnancy check, and just prior to their return home. By recording weight gain and height at these times, Imdieke is able “to see if we’re on course with our objectives.” For most of his clients, the goal is to breed heifers at 13 months of age, weighing 825 to 850 pounds.

Without the performance records, heifers could start slipping past that goal. That not only delays age at first calving, but it also increases the cost to raise the heifers. “It gets pretty expensive to feed them an extra couple months,” Imdieke adds. 

Jack Banker also weighs heifers at regular intervals to monitor his goals. One such goal at Banker Scenic View Farm in Black Creek, Wis., is to grow heifers at the rate of 1.8 pounds of gain per head per day. Achieving this average daily gain helps Banker keep his feed cost in line on the 850-head operation that he manages with his son.

That’s because the growth records show Banker if the heifers are performing well on a particular diet. If, for example, the heifers gain on target, he knows they’re doing well on a ration. And that, he says, prevents him from “spending money on feeds we don’t need.”

Whatever your heifer-raising goals, good records keep your heifers on the path toward those objectives.

Reduces variability
McDonald’s makes its hamburgers in such a consistent manner that you can expect a burger served at your local McDonald’s to taste identical to one prepared in a McDonald’s in another state — or even another country, for that matter.

In a sense, raising heifers is a lot like the principle behind McDonald’s hamburgers — both aim to produce a consistent product.

Managing heifers is “all about controlling variance,” says Pat Hoffman, dairy scientist at the University of Wisconsin’s Marshfield Agricultural Research Station.

That’s why heifer records are so important. They help you identify and reduce variation in your management program so you produce a consistent product — heifers that calve as close as possible to your target age at first calving.

Don Gardner, veterinarian and custom heifer grower, charts heifer growth rates at Gardner Custom Heifer Raising in Huddleston, Va.

“When heifers come in, we weigh (them) and measure wither heights,” he says. Gardner uses this information to generate a growth chart. This growth chart pinpoints animals that drift too far above or below 350 to 400 pounds — his target arrival weight.

For example, if heifers fall short of this target arrival weight, Gardner knows he’ll have to play catch-up to get those animals to reach a specific age and weight at first breeding.      

If he didn’t use these records to spot drifters, heifers could easily fail to calve at a specific age and weight — something neither Gardner nor his clients want to see happen. Gardner then sends a copy of this growth chart back to his clients so they will know if their performance is on target. If not, they can adjust their program.

By keeping records, you too can identify if animals are meeting a performance goal, and if they’re not, take action to minimize problems before they result in an inconsistent product.

Improves your management
Heifer-management records also help you make sound management decisions.

David Fisher of Mapleview Farm in Madrid, N.Y., keeps records for this very reason. Fisher keeps health records for each calf on his 1,125-head dairy farm. Anytime someone treats a sick calf, it gets logged in the record-keeping system. When calves reach two to four months of age, Fisher uses those records to weed out unthrifty calves. “Unhealthy calves are often unhealthy heifers, and unhealthy heifers are often unproductive cows,” he says.

Instead of simply relying on visual appraisal to make culling decisions, Fisher has the treatment records to help him make wise decisions on which animals to cull from his herd. The records give him “more information to (base) decisions on,” he adds.

At CalfSource LLC in DePere, Wis., records serve as a way for clients to evaluate their newborn-calf management, says Lewis Anderson, business unit manager at the 6,700-calf operation.

For example, when calves arrive at the facility, about 30 percent are randomly selected to measure serum blood protein levels, Anderson says. This test is a good indicator of whether or not calves received enough antibodies from good-quality colostrum. If the records from a particular dairy consistently show subpar blood protein levels, the producer knows he needs to do a better job of getting good-quality colostrum into his calves. To help that producer get a handle on the problem, Anderson says Calf- Source LLC will, if requested by the producer, test serum blood protein levels on each calf that arrives from that dairy until the problem is resolved.

Furthermore, all CalfSource LLC customers record newborn calf-care information, such as who fed colostrum and the time it was fed. That information, used in conjunction with the blood protein records, allows a producer to identify and correct poor colostrum-feeding practices. Ultimately, this improves a dairy’s newborn-calf management and ensures that calves get off to a healthy start.

Someday, your heifers will form the backbone of your herd. That’s why it’s so important now to invest time and energy on management records for these animals. The future of your business depends on it.