Heifer growers set welfare guidelines
A healthy heifer is a happy heifer—and, oh, by the way, a profitable heifer.
Deep down, every dairy producer knows that. But sometimes, missing the details in heifer management puts animals—and profits—at risk.
To reinforce that point, and to ensure that everyone is clear on best practices, the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association (DCHA) released its Gold Standards III in September.
The standards were developed by a committee of heifer growers, dairy veterinarians and industry experts who specialize in heifer care. The group’s chairman is Vance Kells of Circle Bar Heifer Ranch in Satanta, Kan.
"What we find in virtually all cases is that production practices that keep animals’ best welfare interests in mind also result in the best production outcomes," Kells says.
While there is overlap between the new standards and the Gold I and II standards for calf and heifer growth, Gold III is written from the standpoint of animal welfare, says Maureen Hanson, manager of DCHA’s standards project. Gold III covers veterinarian involvement, colostrum management, housing, nutrition, handling, transportation, vaccination, drug therapy, parasite control, elective medical care and euthanasia.
In the area of housing, for example, Gold III sets specific ventilation rates. For young calves housed indoors, fans should be sized to provide 100 cu. ft. of air movement per minute (CFM) in hot weather, 50 CFM in mild weather and 15 CFM in cold weather. Calves two to six months of age require ventilation rates 20% to 30% higher.
Gold III also supports the "Five Freedoms" developed by the Farm Animal Welfare Council of the UK. These are: freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury or disease; freedom to express normal behavior; and freedom from fear and distress.
One of the more controversial recommendations in Gold III is that calves up to two months of age be housed so they can turn around and have at least 24 sq. ft. of resting space. That would move the industry away from narrow crates that often prevent the animal from grooming itself. But doing so would move the industry toward accepted global standards, Hanson says.
Another crucial area is access to water. Even though producers may think they are providing adequate water, researchers have found it can be limited when calves transition into super hutches, where they are housed in larger groups for the first time.
Gold III recommends 1 linear foot of water intake space for every 10 animals in the group, or at least one automatic waterer for every 20 animals, with a minimum of two waterers per group with an adequate water supply.
Producers need to review these standards and make adjustments to their own heifer programs, Hanson says. The time to do it is now, and voluntarily.
Then, if and when animal welfare advocates decide standards should be imposed on the industry, calf and heifer growers can show they have already adopted standards—standards that work.