Guide to dairy heifer rearing and lifetime productivity

The cost of rearing a heifer to calve at 24 months is approximately €1,500 with heifer rearing representing up to 20% of a dairy farm’s expenses.

The main objectives of good heifer rearing is to ensure optimal lifetime productivity:

  • Heifers to calve at 22-24 months weighing 85-90% of mature body weight i.e. 500-550kg
  • Heifers to calve at the beginning of the calving season to maximise grass use and to ensure a tight calving pattern in future.

Impact of age of first calving

  • If first calved at 24 months the €1,500 cost of rearing a heifer will be paid off, on average, by the middle of the second lactation at approximately 42 months of age.
  • If a heifer is not calved until 30 months of age or older, the cost of rearing her is not returned until she is a full ten months older, at 52 months of age.
  • If these late calving heifers do not last in the herd for a third lactation then there is no profit from them at all and they are a net loss to the farm. Research has shown that heifers that calve at 30 months or older do not last as long in the herd. Short Herd Lifespan = Significant Economic Cost 

Growth rates and age at first calving influences how much milk a cow produces over her lifetime and how long she lasts in the herd.

Growth Targets:

  • At 6 months of age: 30% of Mature Body Weight (the weight of a 2nd or 3rd calver when being served)
  • At Breeding (13-15 months): 55-60% of Mature Body Weight
  • At Calving (22-24 months): 85-90% of Mature Body Weight
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A daily live weight gain of 720g is required for a 40kg calf in her first year so that she is served on time and calves at 24 months of age.

The three Pillars of Good Heifer Rearing are:

  1. Calf Health
  2. Calf Nutrition
  3. Good Breeding Programme

Good calf health begins with colostrum. Remember the 1-2-3 of colostrum management: 3L of the first milk within two hours. Calf scour is the number one killer of Irish calves less than one-month-old.

Calf pneumonia is the number one killer of Irish calves from one-month-old to 12 months of age.

Impact of Pneumonia in young dairy calves:

  • Average cost of €53 per case at time of disease (treatment costs, time etc.)
  • Increase age to first calving by two weeks
  • Reduce 1st lactation yield by 4%
  • Reduce 2nd lactation yield by 8%
  • Reduce the number of overall days in milk for individual animals by an average of 109 days.

Pneumonia Prevention in calves

Early protection against the most common viruses is recommended to prevent calf pneumonia. BRSV and Pi3 have been identified as two of the most common virus pneumonia infection in Irish calves.

Rispoval RS+Pi3 Intranasal is a single dose vaccine that can be administered from nine days of age which protects against both of these viruses within 5-10 days.

In the video below Cavan man, John Smith outlines how his 90 cow dairy herd dealt with pneumonia problems which were resulting in significant financial losses for his business.

Key points:

  • Calf pneumonia is the number one killer of animals less than 12 months in Ireland
  • Pneumonia in replacement heifer calves has a long-term impact on their lifetime productivity
  • Protect against RSV and Pi3 infection, 2 of the most common causes of virus pneumonia in calves, with Rispoval Intranasal vaccine from 9 days of age.

Heifer rearing is the most important annual investment on dairy farms. Optimising health and growth rates in heifer calves protects the future of the herd’s productivity.

In association with Zoetis

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