Do ‘recycled’ empty cows have a role?

Increasing the number of dairy cows is expensive and can be a significant drain on cash in a fledgling dairy business. This applies whether one purchases in-calf heifers/young cows or takes the more patient -and possibly more expensive – approach of rearing extra heifers from calf stage.

It surprises me that more expansion-minded farmers don’t try to grow numbers via purchasing appropriate empty cows.

It has always been a popular option in New Zealand and, indeed, to a lesser extent in Ireland, though in recent years it has tended to be frowned upon in this country. This is despite improved record keeping at farm level underpinned by a growing and justifiable confidence in EBI Fertility Sub-Index reliability.

While many report that the same cost is incurred to carry a purchased empty cow as to rear the equivalent weanling heifer to a point where both can enter the milking herd again, the carryover cow will enter the herd as a mature cow and therefore will have a much greater production potential than the young heifer, for probably two lactations.

The downside, however, is that the carryover cow, once milking again, will potentially have more difficulty getting back in calf than the first lactation heifer.

However, If carryover cows can be kept on rough grazing & out-wintered cheaply, she then becomes a significantly cheaper proposition than the traditionally reared heifer.

This is a real option for farms with rough grazing, or parts of rented out-farms not suitable for silage cutting. I would know of some farmers who now rear significantly less heifers than some blueprints suggest, but cheaply recycle some carefully chosen empty cows to keep herd numbers on track or growing depending on what stage of development they are at.

To minimise risk with this practice, the selection process is crucial. Identify cows of appropriate type that have completed one, two or three lactations. They would need a minimum EBI Fertility Sub-index of €90. Good legs, feet and of course low SCC.

If one is considering purchasing empty cows to recycle, apply the same criteria but chose the source farm or farms with great care. Needless to say the mart is not the place to look. Identify a farm where there has been a strong emphasis on fertility in their breeding & selection decisions over a long number of years.

Such a farmer will be able to provide an accurate assessment as to a possible reason why these cows didn’t go in-calf. Perhaps they calved in the second half of calving season or had a post-calving infection that wasn’t treated in time?

Many cows show up empty on an autumn scan having gone in calf but suffered embryonic loss. In other cases, the animal may have calved too small as a heifer and spent first lactation trying to grow and produce milk. None of these should prevent an otherwise fertile cow from successfully being recycled. From a group of 20 empty cows from such a herd, I would expect 13 or 14 to meet the above criteria. A veterinary examination is advised before finally deciding whether to recycle or not.

Carryover cows thus selected calf early and compactly on their return to a milking herd. Subsequent empty rates from this group tend to be higher than desirable at 12-15%, but, overall, recycling appropriate cows if managed correctly can be a cheap way of increasing numbers.

It also can provide a profitable enterprise for a struggling beef farmer, to support a growing dairy business either perhaps by feeding the carryover cows on a pre-arranged contract basis, similar to contract rearing for a dairy farmer.

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