Editor's note: Mel Wenger is a veterinarian and co-owner of the Orrville Veterinary Clinic, Inc., a seven-doctor mixed animal practice in Orrville, Ohio.
I was recently asked to look at group of young heifers that were housed on a nearby farm, away from the main dairy, with a complaint of not looking good and coughing.
Because this was one of my well-managed dairy farms, I was surprised to find the heifers standing in sloppy conditions, breathing air so strong with ammonia that I could barely breathe, and with little air movement on a very hot day. And sure enough, the calves were coughing and not looking so good. These calves had left the main dairy a month or so earlier in good shape, growing well, and on their way to a proper breeding weight by 13 to 14 months. But with these conditions, they would not be making it.
It is during these 10 to 12 months — between weaning and breeding — which are often the forgotten months in the heifer’s life. These heifers are relatively easy to care for and have few health concerns when properly cared for. But things can go wrong.
3 areas to watch
There are three main management areas that are easily forgotten or overlooked that significantly affect the livelihood of this age group of heifers. Nutrition, environment, and parasites all need to be carefully monitored to prevent a setback to these heifers.
First of all, maintaining the nutritional status of the growing animal is critical to reaching breeding height and weight on time. Much attention has been given in recent years to the higher level of protein and energy in the milk replacer and starter grain of the newborn calf. These calves start out much more quickly and stay healthier as they reach weaning age. These calves are then grouped together and switched to a hay and grower grain diet as they prepare for the growing months. Unfortunately, with tight budgets combined with high hay and grain prices, the level of nutrition that these calves were started on is difficult to maintain, and they are often the first group of animals to be cut back on when it comes to grain and protein. In reality the feeding of these heifers is one of the greater expenses on a dairy farm. It is also a fact that this population of heifers is being squeezed in tighter spaces due to the disproportional increase in numbers by the use of sexed semen. These increased demands for space and feed are often unexpected or ignored. Whether pasture fed or in a pen, the nutrition is often not monitored nor is the condition of the animal watched as closely. As the energy and protein become limited, the heifers quickly slow their rate of growth and struggle to maintain their health. I often times see the switch to fermented feeds and poorer quality hay, ignoring what is best for the animal. As the level of nutrition decreases, the opportunity for other negative health issues increase.
Secondly, the environment must be maintained to provide a comfortable bed and quality air to breathe. Much like I mentioned in an earlier article if you are not willing to find a spot in the pen to lie down and breathe easily, it is not fit for the heifer either. Air movement is a must and fresh air needs to be constantly replacing stale air. Also the population of each pen needs to be controlled. Squeezing 20 heifers in a pen made for 15 does not work.
The third area to monitor in these heifers is parasites. These include internal parasites like worms and coccidia, external parasites like lice and mange, and environmental parasites like flies and ringworm. These can all be prevented with careful attention to a few details. Mostly keeping things clean and dry and maintaining a healthy animal will prevent parasite problems. As I have mentioned many times, it is easier to prevent these parasites from becoming problems than to allow them to affect the heifers and then try to treat them.
Monitor the in-between months
It is during these in-between months that the heifer is often times vaccinated to prepare for breeding and adulthood. It takes a healthy, growing heifer to properly receive and utilize the vaccines to build a stronger immunity. A healthy heifer in this stage of life will pay dividends in reaching breeding age in good shape with a strong immune system and few health treatment costs.
So, the next time you are checking on things, take a few extra minutes and check out the forgotten heifers to make sure they are properly cared for. A properly-cared-for heifer will be ready to move into the breeding pen at 13 to 14 months or earlier. Fewer treatment costs turn into more dollars to feed and care for this group of heifers.