Raising dairy replacement heifers is a significant investment for most dairy operations. Monitoring performance and making adjustments as an investment grows is a key to optimizing return on investment. Without measuring calf growth from birth to weaning, post-weaning to breeding age, and then from breeding age to calving, dairy producers cannot effectively measure the return on their investment. That’s according to Gary Geisler, a calf and heifer specialist with Purina Animal Nutrition, located in Wisconsin.
To effectively monitor growth rates, plan on evaluating calf and heifer growth every three months. If frequent monitoring is not possible for all age groups, focus on the youngest animals, says Geisler.
Geisler references the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association Gold Standards as a guide to setting the following calf growth goals.
Young calves (birth to 180 days of age):
- Double birth weight from 24 hours to 60 days of age
- Maintain 2.2 pounds per day average daily gain from 61 to 120 days of age
- Achieve 2.0 pounds per day average daily gain from 121 to 180 days of age
Breeding age heifers (13 to 15 months of age):
- Weight of 825-900 pounds (or 55 percent of the weight of mature cows in the herd)
- Hip height greater than 50 inches
- Wither height greater than 48 inches
- 1,350 pounds (or 85 percent of the weight of full-term, pregnant, mature cows in the herd)
- Body condition score at freshening of 3.5 (on a 5-point scale)
- Target a 1.7 to 2.0 pounds per day average daily gain from birth to pre-fresh
An effective growth monitoring system hinges on time and equipment, notes Geisler. If planning a new calf facility is on the horizon, an efficient infrastructure for monitoring calf growth is highly recommended.
A more likely scenario, notes Geisler is that calf raisers must make-do with existing facilities. This he says shouldn’t stop dairy producers from monitoring performance, as there are ways calf raisers lacking optimal facilities or the manpower effectively monitor calf growth, says Geisler.
Monitor group weight
When moving calves regularly with trailers from one pen/barn to another – weigh the empty trailer and then again once loaded to catch the group weight. In most cases, the calves will be roughly the same age, so an estimated average daily gain can be recorded each time a group is moved.
Monitor individual weight
Weight tape and hip sticks are effective ways to capture growth performance. An efficient time to measure individual animals is while they are locked up during feeding or routine health checks.