Precision feeding heifers can result in a 20% to 30% improvement in feed efficiency.
The approach cuts costs and boosts feed efficiency
The 11th commandment for dairy farmers and heifer growers is: Thou shalt have feed in front of heifers 24 hours a day.
However, research during the past decade is proving that edict false. If followed, 24-hour feed availability leads to overconditioned heifers, poor feed efficiency and unnecessarily high feed costs.
With modern heifer-raising facilities that limit environmental stress and provide high-quality diets, heifers must somehow be limit-fed, says Jud Heinrichs, a nationally recognized expert on heifer raising based at Penn State University. "With good facilities and high-forage-quality rations, we don’t need feed in front of heifers more than six to eight hours per day," he says.
"We’re often reminded of the importance of feed efficiency for lactating dairy cows, yet the concept is seldom mentioned for the growing heifer," he adds. "However, dairy animals spend over half of their life on most farms as a calf or heifer, which means feed efficiency is critical, as well."
Limit-feeding increases the digestibility of the ration being fed because it slows the rate of passage of that feed through the animal. As a result, you’ll gain 20% to 30% in feed efficiency, which represents significant feed cost savings, Heinrichs says.
Rations must still be carefully balanced to ensure heifers are receiving needed protein and energy; see table at right. But diets can easily be formulated to meet these needs, ensuring heifers are growing properly while saving feed costs.
Key to precision feeding is weighing heifers regularly to ensure they’re meeting growth targets, Heinrichs says. "An inappropriate level of diet restriction can lead to rapid gains and fat heifers, or gains lower than desired," he says.
Weighing heifers once a month is best. Once your system is established, less frequent weighing works as long as you monitor body condition.
Always "weigh heifers at the same time of day [relative to feeding]; otherwise, alterations in gut fill can impact average dairy gain calculations," Heinrichs says.
Heifers must also be grouped with similarly sized animals for precision feeding to work. Otherwise, larger animals can prevent smaller animals from accessing feed.
From four months of age until breeding, Heinrichs recommends a weight variation no greater than 200 lb., with age variation of no more than two to four months. "Post breeding, this number can be increased to 300 lb. weight spread between animals within a group," he says.
And because animals won’t have access to feed all day and night, bunk space is critical. "Heifers will need 14" to 24" of feedbunk space per heifer as they progress from four months of age to pre-calving or 22 months of age," he says.
- April 2014