8 potential bottlenecks when raising calves and heifers

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Dairy CalvesCalves at M & M Feedlot in Parma, Idaho, appear calm in a group pen, despite having just been moved from individual hutches. All 12 of the bull calves in the group pen appeared calm and comfortable, despite just having been moved from individual hutches the day before. Introduction to group hutches can be a stressful time — essentially, it’s like a five-year-old child experiencing his first day of kindergarten with new classmates, points out calf and heifer raiser Darin Mann, of M & M Feedlot in Parma, Idaho.

To make the animals’ adjustment easier at M & M Feedlot, there are small groups of 12 initially. After two weeks, the animals are moved to a group of 24, then two weeks later to a group of 48, and so on to progressively larger sizes. And, there are no feed changes, initially — the animals receive the same grain pellets that they received in the hutch. (Total mixed rations come a little later.)

The group pens are designed to help animals thrive rather than struggle, Mann says. Therefore, M & M Feedlot is able to avoid one of the common heifer-rearing bottlenecks — performance lag when animals are moved from hutches to group pens.

There are eight common heifer-rearing bottlenecks, points out Gene Boomer, manager of field technical services for Arm & Hammer Animal Nutrition. They include:

1. Colostrum harvest and delivery.
“Harvesting and delivering an adequate volume of clean, high-quality colostrum in a timely manner must be the foundation for all successful dairy heifer development programs,” Boomer says.

It’s a priority for the Aardema Group dairies in Idaho.

“We do a really good job as far as colostrum goes,” says Jordan Leak, operations manager for the seven Aardema dairies.

Aardema Calf Ranch Manager Brandon Andersen and his crew use a Brix refractometer to test for solids in the colostrums — they like to see a Brix score of 22 percent or higher. It rarely falls below that level, but if it does they will add colostrum supplement. They feed the calves 4 quarts within the first hour of life, using an esophageal feeder to ensure that the animals get the full gallon. Then, eight to 12 hours later there’s a second feeding — this time, 2 quarts via a bottle.

To monitor calf-feeding success, they draw blood on every third calf during processing in the calf hutches. Ninety-five percent of the calves have a serum protein concentration of 5.5 grams per deciliter or above, which indicates that the calves are off to a good start.

2. Ramp up milk intake.
To ensure adequate nutrition, many farms have switched from 2 quarts of milk fed twice a day to 3 quarts two or three times a day.

Brandon Andersen, calf ranch manager for the Aardema Group of dairies in Idaho, oversees 3,500 calf hutches. It’s a big responsibility — and having protocols in place is essential. At the Aardema Group dairies, they feed 4 quarts for the first five days of life, then ramp it up to 6 quarts a day through weaning. (Holstein calves receive 3 quarts of pasteurized  milk twice a day and Jersey calves get 2 quarts three times a day.) Pasteurized milk is tested and fortified with milk replacer to meet a minimum of 14 percent total solids, 26 percent crude protein and 20 percent fat.

3. Weaning.

“Experience has changed weaning recommendation and weaning should be based on calf starter intake versus days of age,” Boomer says. “Do not wean an animal until it is consuming 2.5 to 3 pounds of calf starter for three consecutive days.”

That’s the rule followed at Aardema Group dairies.

After weaning, they keep the animals on calf starter for an additional 10 days to two weeks. During that time, Holsteins consume 5 to 7 pounds of starter feed per day; Jerseys a little less.

4. Grouping lag.
This is an area where M & M Feedlot in Parma, Idaho, puts a lot of time and effort. (See the description that appears earlier in this story.)

Currently, M & M raises about 700 bull calves, but has the permits and facilities to raise a lot more calves someday for other dairies.

5. Grower stage.
Besides calves, M & M Feedlot specializes in replacement heifers. Currently, it raises 13,000 heifers for five different dairymen.

Heifers typically arrive at six months of age. M & M keeps them segregated according to weight — 400 to 450 pounds in a pen, 451 to 500 pounds in a pen, and so on in 50-pound increments. That allows the feedlot to keep track of the animals’ progress and tailor their rations to their exact needs.

“We don’t limit-feed, we don’t over-feed. I call it exact-feed,” says Darin Mann, who besides helping to run M & M recently served as president of the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association.

There is uniformity in the animals’ appearance, which indicates that M & M is feeding them right; the animals are not stressed, and the pens are not overstocked.

Average daily gain has been running 1.96 for the animals between six and 12 months of age, which is outstanding.

Monitoring bodyweight and average daily gain is important in making the right feeding and culling decisions, Boomer points out.

6. Introduction to breeding pen.
“Movement to the breeding pen must be based primarily upon accurate hip heights and bodyweight measurements, with age as a secondary parameter,” Boomer says. “Holsteins should be 51 to 52 inches at the hip when entering the breeding pen.”

At M & M, they wait until the animals are 52 inches at the hip and a minimum of 850 pounds.

Meticulous records are kept of the animals’ breeding progress.

“Age at conception is the key performance indicator to monitor for heifers in the breeding pen,” Boomer says.

7. Movement to close-up pen.
“The most common mistake in this phase is not getting springing heifers on the close-up diet for more than 21 days before freshening,” Boomer says. “Move heifers to the closeup pen before they reach 250 days carried calf,” he adds. “The key numbers to monitor are days in close-up pen and dry matter intake. Monitor variation, as well as averages. Days in close-up pen should be greater than 21 and the average dry matter intake for Holstein heifers greater than 24 pounds.

“The second most common mistake is not feeding the rumen microbes to provide about 1,200 grams metabolizable protein,” Boomer says. “The fetus and mammary gland are developing at a very fast rate as the end of gestation nears, resulting in increased requirements for metabolizable protein and energy.”

Look at the uniform size of these heifers in the breeding pen at M & M Feedlot in Parma, Idaho. Prior to entering the breeding pen, animals were grouped according to weight and fed to exact nutritional needs. Again, M & M Feedlot is meticulous on this point. The animals within a pen are usually within 8 to 10 days of one another in terms of pregnancy length, which allows them to be fed according to their exact nutritional needs for that stage of gestation.

8. Animal comfort and welfare.
“In today’s society, consumers want the ideal,” Boomer points out. “If you say you are doing it, you had better be able to prove it.

“Therefore, protocols must be in place for housing, feeding, breeding, moving and handling and treating all ages of livestock on the farm,” he says. There must be consequences for individuals who do not follow protocols, he adds. “Protocols must be in writing and training programs must be documented. These records are the only way to defend the practices on your farm.”

For more information:
More details on the eight calf- and heifer-raising bottlenecks are available in the paper “Guidelines for successful dairy heifer development” by Gene Boomer, manager of field technical services for Arm & Hammer Animal Nutrition. The paper was presented this past March at the Western Dairy Management Conference in Reno, Nev., and can be accessed online at: http://tinyurl.com/ag6rxgk


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