The following case was handled by Tyler Colburn, dairy nutritionist and co-owner of Alpha Dairy Consulting in Visalia, Calif.

High feed costs the past several years have taken a toll on heifer rations in California, forcing the use of alternative by-products to new levels.

Tyler Colburn, dairy nutritionist from central California, knows this all too well as he tries to rectify the problems brought on by overzealous use of high-fiber, low-energy, low-quality-protein ingredients and higher diet moisture levels in heifer rations. 

At one +3,000-cow dairy, the problems were rather acute.

When Colburn started working with the dairy in the fall of 2011, one of the most obvious problems had to do with the first-calf heifers ― they were significantly underperforming in relation to the mature cows. The first-calf heifers were averaging ~25,000 pounds of milk (305-day ME) compared to the overall herd average of 28,000.

Another warning flag: The first-calf heifers were 2 to 3 inches shorter at calving than they should have been.

They were “completely underfed,” Colburn notes.  Problems began when the heifers arrived at the farm at six months of age and continued right up until the time they were about to calve.  

Yet, the dairyman prided himself on feeding cheap by-products and having low feed costs.

It ended up costing him in the end.

“If you skimp on heifers, the future of your herd… eventually, you will have all kind of problems,” Colburn says.

Besides increased metabolic problems, there was a significant amount of dystocia among the first-calf heifers because they were not of adequate size.

To try to make up for smaller heifers, the dairyman extended the time they were on a close-up ration ― from 14 days pre-calving to +28 days. That, in turn, created its own set of problems.

It was “an all-around first-lactation storm,” Colburn says.

After he agreed to take on the farm, Colburn was able to convince the dairyman to concentrate up the heifer rations with higher-quality protein ingredients. He also used the by-products a little differently to achieve better results. 

“We were able to significantly improve growth and performance over the last year and a half,” he said. Average milk production of the first-calf heifers has improved by more than 2,000 pounds ― and it’s continuing to climb, he adds.

Milk production improved, health improved, breeding improved… the dairyman was ecstatic.

Take-home message: There can be ramifications to feeding a high-fiber, low-energy, low-quality protein type diet to heifers if careful attention isn’t given to details. It will end up costing you more than what you saved on feed costs in the end.