What does a quality heifer look like? The answer to this question will likely vary depending upon who answers.

There is more than one way to successfully raise a heifer. But, everyone can agree that a quality heifer is one that is alert, healthy and in good body condition.

But how do you ensure that this happens? One way is to set goals and expectations for raising calves.

Set the bar for your operation

Setting goals draws a line in the sand for your operation, says Lewis Anderson, calf-care specialist with Calf-Tel and president of the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association.

Goals reflect the ability of the operation to manage and they let you ask yourself, “Am I an average, below- or above-average calf raiser?”

“Most dairy farmers have goals and production parameters for the milking herd, but not their calves and heifers,” says Sam Leadley, calf-care specialist with Attica (N.Y.) Veterinary Associates.

There is a lot of shoot-from-the-hip, event-driven goal-setting that goes on, says Leadley. For example, you may look at your antibiotic or electrolyte bill and decide that too many calves are getting sick and then say to yourself, “we have to get better.” But what does better really mean? asks Leadley. “Better” is impossible to determine unless you have written goals.

Written goals allow you to track, evaluate and work as a team to accomplish the goals. “It gives your employees something to aim for,” says Gary Neubauer, senior veterinarian with Pfizer Animal Health.

New industry benchmarks are available from the Dairy Calf & Heifer Association that can help you get started. (See “Do your calves get a gold star?” on page 22.) “Benchmarks like these let you compare how you’re doing and where you may need to adjust your efforts,” says Anderson.

Success and profitability

The most successful producers and calf-raisers set goals, says Anderson. “The ones that choose not to write and track their goals seem to struggle during stressful times.” And, he adds, if a goal is unwritten it is only a wish.

“Our objective is to be as efficient at raising heifers as possible, for both ourselves and our customers,” says Diana Lujano-Gonzales, general manager of Cameiro Heifer Ranch in Brawley, Calif. “Cost is a big factor.” Setting goals helps Cameiro Heifer Ranch set a baseline cost for raising animals and develop standards for heifer performance on arriving animals and which heifers to cull.

Cameiro Heifer Ranch raises heifers from 120 days to six to eight weeks prior to calving. Upon arrival at the ranch, all animals are inspected. If animals do not meet the goals the ranch has set for arriving heifers, they are sent to beef. “Our goals help us ensure we are raising animals that will stay in the herd, produce milk, rebreed and be profitable for our customers,” says Lujano-Gonzales.

Sometimes, people never really look at their heifers and evaluate the animal to see if she is the animal they want to see in the herd 24 months from now. Goal-setting can help you do this.

It’s about animal welfare

By setting and measuring goals, you give your heifer-raising a measure of quality control that allows you to verify that you are treating your calves and heifers to the very best of your ability, says Neubauer. Animal welfare continues to be a big issue, and the dairy industry will continue to come under scrutiny from animal-rights activists and consumers.

Setting goals addresses consumer concerns and raises the success level of the whole industry.

Take a look at what you’re doing and measure it; it’s a win-win for the dairy, the calf-raiser and the consumer.