February 13, 2022 at 2:56 a.m.

Creating the best environment for heifers

Cook addresses bedding type, stall design, feed bunk guidelines
Dairy animals are fed outdoors which provides outside access, gives heifers additional exercise and exposes them to changing elements and climates to prevent over-conditioning.   PHOTO SUBMITTED
Dairy animals are fed outdoors which provides outside access, gives heifers additional exercise and exposes them to changing elements and climates to prevent over-conditioning. PHOTO SUBMITTED

MADISON, Wis. – Bedded packs or free stalls? Organic solids or sand? Headlocks or no headlocks? When it comes to raising heifers, what are the best options?
 “The Dairy Signal” podcast is hosted by Professional Dairy Producers, Dr. Nigel Cook, MRCVS, professor in food animal production medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine and serves as chair of the Department of Medical Sciences. In a recent podcast, Cook discussed the critical ins and outs of heifer comfort, including barn and stall design, bedding type, hoof health and other management practices.
Heifers require different housing than adult animals; therefore, mirroring a heifer’s environment to that of a cow’s is a temptation that should be avoided. Free stalls, sand bedding and headlocks work well for cows but are not always the best option for heifers.
“I think we’ve learned that what we’re doing with cows may not necessarily be the best thing for heifers,” Cook said. “We’re in an industry where we like to get heifers into free stalls as early as possible. However, I have a strong preference for keeping heifers on bedding packs at least until breeding age as I believe this is the ideal environment for rearing heifers.”
Cook recommends using organic materials in bedded pack systems, such as composting or layering an anaerobic fermentation of straw or cornstalks. The recommended bedded resting area per animal is 40-square-feet for a 400-pound heifer, 50-square-feet for a 600-pound heifer, 60-square-feet for an 800-pound heifer and 70-square-feet for a 1,000-pound heifer.
“A bedded pack gives you the flexibility to accommodate heifers with a wide range in body size,” Cook said. “You’re providing heifers a nice open space to spread out and rest. However, a lack of available bedding is one of the biggest cons of bedding packs. These setups are costly, and the barns take up greater space.”
Whether pressed straight off of fresh manure or a digester or put through heat treatment, there are various ways to acquire manure solids for bedding.
“We have a lot of this material that can be successfully used to house heifers very comfortably, but it still has to be managed,” Cook said. “Straight off the press, it usually runs 70% moisture, and we see animals reject using stalls at that level. Cattle don’t like wet bedding surfaces, so we need to get the moisture level down.”
Sand is ideal for cows but may not be the best for heifers as sand can be harsh to the developing foot, causing premature wear to a hoof that is not fully calcified. Pressure and growth wear issues can occur from the use of sand – particularly recycled sand. As a result, more rubber usage in heifer pens is occurring at the feed bunk to try to reduce that wear.
The risk for hoof problems, like corkscrew claw syndrome and digital dermatitis, is lower in bedded pack housing than in sand-bedded free stalls. Corkscrew claw syndrome is related to a thin sole and inflammation coupled with changes to the bone occurring in a young animal before the skeleton has changed from cartilage to bone, causing rotation of the claw. This disease is indicated by the twisting of the medial or inside claw and tends to affect all four feet.
“We even see changes in the P2 bone sometimes, which is the next bone up above the digit,” Cook said. “This is not going to be fixed with a little bit of trimming and cosmetic help. When you pick feet up, they can look absolutely horrendous, and this is a major issue for some farms. Imagine a heifer with this problem calving on a 1,000-cow dairy and being asked to walk half-a- mile-a-day on concrete on one claw. What might that do to her?”
Heifers may react to the pain by crossing their legs as they try to put weight on the outer claw and take weight off of the inner claw.
“If you’re starting to see cross-legged heifers, that’s another sign there are some bony painful changes occurring in these animals’ feet,” Cook said.
If a farm sees issues of corkscrew claw popping up, the fastest and easiest way out of it is to convert from sand bedding to manure solids.
“The best thing we can do is go from a free stall to a bedded pack,” Cook said. “Failing that, moving those animals off sand is probably the main thing you need to do.”
Cook said the use of headlocks doubles the risk for corkscrew claw syndrome.
“We use a lot of headlocks, but I’m not sure it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “You’re giving that animal a pivot point to push against to push those forces through the skeleton and create changes. We’re aware of these problems in adult cows, too, and we’ve had to modify the way we trim to accommodate for the extra wear we see.”
Use slant bar feed bunks when there is not a regular need to lock heifers, and consider handling cattle through a chute rather than locking animals up in the pen. Also, improve the design of flooring finishes to suit heifers by limiting the use of grooved concrete or high-traction flooring.
“I don’t think you can fix the very worst stages of corkscrew claw syndrome,” Cook said. “You can trim around it and manage the cow, but she’s always going to have a problem. When it’s mild, you can probably reverse it. You do not see this problem in dry lot dairies. Heifers shipped off to Colorado and similar places come back with beautiful feet. You also don’t see this problem on pasture.”
The upside of free stall housing compared to bedding packs is that it can accommodate more animals in less space with less costly bedding. But, trying to provide a uniform free stall that works well for all age groups is challenging, especially on smaller farms where small and large heifers are grouped together. If using free stalls, stall dimensions must be compatible with heifer needs. Cook said the industry is doing OK on width, but people are underestimating length.
“We tend to think because these animals are younger and smaller, we can skimp on length and that can cause challenges,” Cook said.
The recommended stall size for growing heifers 6-9 months of age (400-600 pounds) is 34- inches-wide and 80-inches-long; for breeding-age heifers 10-12 months (600-800 pounds) 38- inches-wide and 88-inches-long is recommended; for breeding-age heifers 13-16 months (800-1,000 pounds) stalls should be 42-inches-wide and 96-inches-long; and for pregnant heifers 17-21 months (1,000-1,200 pounds) 45-inches-wide and 108-inches-long are the recommended dimensions.
Another concern is rear curb heights, which are generally too high.
“Heifers don’t like high curbs,” Cook said. “Cows tolerate high curbs extremely well, but heifers are scared of them so trying to make lower curbs is better.”
Poor stall design can create significant alley lying problems, resulting in filthy animals.
“These are smart heifers telling you there’s something wrong with your stalls, and trying to understand what their challenges are will help us design better systems,” Cook said.
Cook said to pay attention to stocking density and watch the number of heifers per stall.
“We’re dealing with a fair bit of overstocking in the industry which impacts the ability of animals to use stalls, access feed and grow at healthy rates,” Cook said. “Overstocking also has a negative impact on air quality.”
One helpful tweak in a free stall barn is to move the feed lane outside, which provides animals with time outdoors and additional exercise. Keeping heifers exposed to changing elements and climates can prevent over-conditioning, especially during summer months.
Sand, free stalls, headlocks, grooved concrete and overstocking can have negative consequences on a heifer’s well-being and be particularly hard on her feet. In some instances, these environments are damaging young hooves beyond repair. Getting heifers off of sand and out of free stalls, and using headlocks in moderation while providing opportunities for outdoor access, can protect heifers’ feet and give them the best environment in which to prosper.


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