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 some details in heifer management puts animals -- and ultimately profits -- at risk.
Maureen Hanson, the project manager working with the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association (DCHA) standards committee, sat down with me yesterday here at World Dairy Expo to go through the recently released Gold Standards III. The dairy calf and heifer welfare standards were released a few weeks ago. But unless you go through them line by line, there are some details that even the most experienced dairy producer or heifer raiser might miss.
The standards were developed by an impressive list of heifer growers, prominent dairy veterinarians and industry experts who specialize in heifer care. The chairman of the group is Vance Kells of Circle Bar Heifer Ranch in Satanta, Kan. Veterinarians Sam Leadley, Gary Neubauer and Bob Patrick also served on the committee.
I point this out to reassure producers reading these guidelines that they were not done in an afternoon over a pot of coffee. A lot of thought, care and science were brought into the discussion, along with the recognition that the standards must be based on common sense and achievable in a commercial farm setting. "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.
And while there is overlap between these new welfare standards and the previous Gold I and II production standards for calves and heifers, Gold III is written specifically from the standpoint of animal welfare.
Gold III covers veterinarian involvement, colostrum management, housing, nutrition, handling, transportation, vaccination, drug therapy, parasite control, elective medical care and euthanasia.
For example, in the area of housing, Gold III has specific ventilation rates for young calves, calves two to six months and heifers six months and older. 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" of animal welfare developed by the Farm Animal Welfare Council of the United Kingdom. These are freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury and disease; freedom to express normal behavior; and freedom from fear and distress.
Following those guidelines, 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 think they are providing adequate water, for example, 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 one 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.
With calves and heifers now being transported hundreds of miles to specialized growers, the transportation guidelines endorse and support those offered by USDA. That means newborn calves should be dray, able to stand by at least 24 hours old prior to transport. For trips longer than 11 hours, tandem drivers should be employed and avoid extra hours on the truck during mandated driver rests. If traveling more than 24 hours with cattle four months or older, they should unload the animals at a clean facility for a feed and water break of at least five hours.
Producers need to review these standards and make adjustments to their own heifer programs. The time to do it is now, and voluntarily. Your calves and heifers will thank you. Plus, the entire industry will be ahead of the curve when animal welfare advocates decide standards should be imposed on the industry. If that time comes, the industry can rightly say it has already adopted standards that work.