By Jim Rhoades, DVM
Healthy and well-developed heifers provide several economic advantages for dairy producers. They reach breeding size sooner, get to the milking string earlier, have lower rearing costs and have a significant financial impact on a dairy’s long-term sustainability and prosperity.
These days, the investment in heifers is rising with the increased availability and usage of tools like DNA-marker technology, reproductive tract scoring, sexed semen and timed artificial insemination programs. And, consequently, so is their potential financial value to the herd.
But too often, producers are not capturing maximum value from their heifers. The lost value typically stems from a lack of formalized protocols and an inconsistent approach to heifer management, which results in diminished growth and inefficient reproduction.
Involve Your Veterinarian
Heifer management is an area of significant opportunity for producers to work with their veterinarians to improve current practices and capture maximum value. Taking into account the unique aspects of each producer’s operation, the herd veterinarian will be able to tailor convenient heifer management guidelines and protocols that fit well with standard operating procedures and are designed to meet the producer’s goals.
The period from calving to three months of age is the most critical time for heifer growth and development. Heifers with a history of disease, insufficient nutrition or housed in overcrowded conditions as young calves are likely to perform poorly in both reproduction and milk production.
Getting heifers off to a fast start is the key to ensuring they reach breeding size on time and in good health. By paying close attention to the following management areas, you can help heifers reach their full potential and deliver maximum profitability.
Environment. Providing calves with a clean, dry environment is of utmost importance. Young calves have developing immune systems and are especially vulnerable to viral and bacterial pathogens. Calves also need access to clean, fresh air, so it’s important that housing is well-ventilated.
Colostrum. Calves need adequate nutrition for health and growth, including a sufficient supply of high-quality colostrum and milk. Four quarts of colostrum within the first six hours of life is essential.
Scours Prevention. Dairy heifers with a history of being treated for scours have been found to be nearly three times more likely than healthy herd mates to calve later than 30 months of age. Preventing calf scours requires careful management of the dam, the environment and the calf. The first step in a scours management program is immunization of the dam with an effective vaccine to deliver passive immunity via high levels of maternal antibodies passed to the calf through colostrum.
Respiratory and reproductive diseases are perhaps the greatest threats to heifer growth, development and breeding efficiency. Without protection against BVD, IBR, PI3, BRSV, lepto hardjo-bovis and clostridial diseases, heifers face long odds of ever meeting herd performance and reproduction goals.
Heifers should be vaccinated with a safe, effective product that provides long-lasting protection against all major diseases. Broad spectrum vaccines that provide effective coverage against these diseases are convenient for many producers.
Annual revaccination for reproductive, respiratory and clostridial diseases should be given prebreeding at 12 –13 months of age. At 8 –16 weeks before calving, heifers should be vaccinated for scours and Clostridium perfringens Type A Toxoid, with boosters given at four weeks prior to calving. Producers should work with their veterinarian to formalize a heifer vaccination protocol that is well-suited to their operation.
By taking a more proactive approach to managing heifers and consistently adhering to a few simple protocols, producers can ensure the availability of top-performing replacement heifers. You will have peace of mind knowing your heifers are healthy and being prepared for a profitable role in their operation.
Jim Rhoades, DVM, is with the Global Head Technical Services-Farm Animal Business division of Novartis Animal Health. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.