ISU staff offer considerations for heifer raising

Kohl, Tranel, Hall present during field day in Sioux Center

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SIOUX CENTER, Iowa — Iowa State University Extension and Outreach held a series of heifer field days across the state in March. 

The field days took place March 26 in Kalona, March 27 in Postville and March 28 at the Dordt University Agriculture Stewardship Center near Sioux Center.

Presenters at the Sioux Center event included Dr. Larry Tranel, ISU Extension and Outreach dairy field specialist; Kris Kohl, ISU field agricultural engineer for northwestern Iowa; and Fred Hall, ISU Extension and Outreach dairy specialist.

Tranel talked about facility design and management for housing calves.

“Up until 2 weeks, baby calves do best in an environment that is between 50 and 78 degrees Fahrenheit,” Tranel said. “After that, they can tolerate temperatures between 32 and 78 degrees. Humans prefer temperatures that are between 72 and 86 degrees.”

Tranel stressed that it is important to keep calves dry and comfortable.

“You don’t want calves to have an environment that is dark, damp and dingy,” Tranel said. “They need to have deep, dry bedding. Straw is best for bedding for baby calves. Sawdust absorbs urine, and urine can be a big source of ammonia. Ammonia opens the lungs, and damaged lungs can affect the animal’s performance. If you detect a strong smell in a calf pen, there’s probably too much ammonia.”

Hall said a calf that is treated for pneumonia one time will give 8,000 pounds less milk during her first lactation.

“That is real money even with today’s milk prices,” Hall said. “One way or the other, you will pay for air quality. If you have a naturally ventilated calf facility, you will want the sidewall curtains to be at least halfway open in the spring, summer and fall.”

The Midwest is known for its unrelenting winds. This is something that producers can use to their advantage, Kohl said.

“A 10 mph wind is moving air at 880 feet per minute,” Kohl said. “This means that 1 square foot of opening can provide enough ventilation for up to 40 baby calves. One part of fresh air will entrain nine parts of room air. When it’s above 60 degrees, the goal is to actually create a windchill on the calves.”

Kohl said to avoid placing naturally ventilated barns that are in the wind shadow of other buildings, and the ease of cleaning a calf facility is important to consider. 

“You should choose calf-raising equipment that you love,” Kohl said. “Make dirty jobs as easy as possible so that they get done.”

Group housing for calves has become increasingly popular.

“One way to group house calves when using calf hutches is to create a common area between two hutches,” Tranel said. “The calves can interact with each other and use the common area as a playground. Studies have shown that 18 calves or less per pen is optimal.” 

Tranel said to avoid using concrete as a base. Rather, he said a base of pea gravel with a tile line underneath it to carry away urine works well for housing calves and uses half as much bedding as a concrete floor.

Kohl said a calf should double its birth weight by weaning.

“Calves are adding a lot of cells during their first 45 days,” Kohl said. “That is why calf comfort is so important.”

Hall said the days of dairy farmers viewing heifer raising as a form of recreation is in the past.

“They can’t look at it that way anymore,” Hall said. “It can cost more than $5 per head per day to grow wet heifer calves.”

There are several things that calf raisers can do to cut costs. Breeding heifers too young is not one of them.

“We might think that we are saving money by calving heifers at 22 months of age,” Tranel said. “But, that animal will never make up for the growth that she needed if she was bred too early. A heifer’s milk production will be reduced by 1,200 pounds in her first lactation if she’s bred just one month too early.”

Grazing can result in substantial savings when growing heifers.

“Seeding land down to pasture isn’t feasible here in northwest Iowa where farmland is bringing upward of $20,000 per acre,” Tranel said. “If you can find someplace to graze your heifers, it will bring advantages in both costs and milk production. Putting heifers on grass at 700 pounds can lower your costs by 12%-20%. The animals will have fewer health problems and will give 1,900 more pounds of milk on average during their first lactations.”

Using beef sires on lower-producing cows is rapidly becoming a standard practice for dairy operators, Hall said.

“Sexed semen and the use of beef sires has had a big effect on our nation’s dairy heifer supply,” Hall said. “Dairy beef has proven to be desirable to consumers. A quality dairy-beef crossbred calf can be worth up to $900. The nation’s beef herd is the lowest it has been since 1961. Dairy cows are currently producing over 30% of our beef calves. The use of beef breeding on our dairy cattle might result in a drought of dairy heifers in a few years.”

At the conclusion of the presentation, an audience member asked about the cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza that have cropped up in some of the nation’s dairy herds.

“HPAI seems to be affecting mature cows that are in the early stages of their lactations,” Tranel said. “The infected animals tend to go off feed and suffer from reduced milk production for about 10 days. They appear to recover fully after that.”

The audience member asked if the affected animals would have immunity from HPAI after they recovered.

“I would guess so,” Tranel said. “That is what we see with most viral infections.”

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