Keys to successful heifers

Tranel shares tips for raising youngstock from birth to calving


AMES, Iowa — Raising healthy heifers through organic management practices can present challenges.

Larry Tranel, a dairy specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, has several do’s and don’ts for raising heifers from birth to first calving.

To set a heifer up for success, Tranel said organic producers should give calves colostrum on time; double birth weight by 56 days; not feed calves too much energy while lacking protein from 3-9 months of age; and breed heifers at the proper body size and weight.

Tranel is a former dairy farmer and heifer raiser with experience in grazing. His family has been in the organic sector for almost 20 years.

Tranel said calves need to receive colostrum in the first 4-6 hours after birth.

“There’s just so many things that the colostrum provides in (developing immunity to) help the calf stay healthy and not get sick,” Tranel said.

Organic farmers who have their calves with nurse cows may assume the calf is receiving its first colostrum in that timeframe from their dam. However, especially with Holstein calves, Tranel said this might not be occurring in more than half the calves.

“Even though it’s more natural, it’s still important to get those cows milked and get that first serving of colostrum into the calf and not just think that it’s going to happen automatically,” Tranel said.

Tranel said it also is important for calves to be clean and dry. During the winter, he said to have a warming box available for use after birth and use calf jackets.

Tranel said that good ventilation is especially important for early calf growth, especially since treatment options for respiratory disease can be limited.

“One episode of a respiratory disease will cut into milk production,” Tranel said.

Tranel said it is important that producers ensure calves are doubling their birth weight within the first 56 days. Tranel said producers should weigh a few calves to track growth.

“There are a lot of different types of cells that grow whether in the udder or the milk-producing cells that ... if it doesn’t develop in the first 45 days of life, it never will,” Tranel said.

For healthy rumen development, Tranel said to get calves on starter right away. He said the fiber within the starter will develop the rumen.

“Get them to start nibbling on it and try to eat it, especially within the first week,” Tranel said.

During winter, Tranel said it is important for pre-weaned calves to have deep bedding and to stay dry and clean. Caked manure or dampness on the flank and knee will make it harder for a heifer to stay warm.

“It just drains a lot of energy out,” Tranel said. “(They are) going to be that much colder and shivering.”

Cold and damp weather conditions force producers to feed additional grain or energy to maintain growth rates, Tranel said.

After weaning, the growth rate should be about 1.8-2 pounds per day. Heifers should be growing in both frame, stature and weight. Tranel said stature is more important than weight.

Two related problems occur during this period. Organic farmers may not feed enough energy, and farmers who feed extra energy without enough protein develop heifers with fat in their udders. This problem is more prevalent in heifers ages 3-9 months.

“I call those Doughboy or corn silage heifers,” Tranel said. “Sometimes producers don’t see that in their own herd.”

The fat in the udder is there instead of milk-producing cells, leading to lower milk production.

Tranel said that research has shown that grazing heifers is beneficial to milk production.

“Heifers that are rotationally grazed, or even just grazed, produce more milk than conventional counterparts,” Tranel said.

Tranel said that on well-managed pasture, his supplementation was as little as 1-1.5 pounds every other day. However, Tranel said heifers put on “the back 40” will not have the same rate of gain and need supplementation.

Heifers need to be moved regularly for their intake to be balanced. Tranel said he sometimes moved his heifers twice a day or three times a day on very hot summer days.

When it comes to pasture mixes, Tranel said to have at least 30%-40% legumes, such as alfalfa or clover. As far as grasses, Tranel said the species is less important than the variety within the species.

“There’s not too many grasses that don’t work,” Tranel said. “Some are just more high yielding. ... There’s a lot of quality differences even within species.”

Breeding too early is also problematic, Tranel said. Producers may think they will save money on feed by breeding heifers to calve in at 22 months. However, if a heifer is not within 85% of the herds’ mature body weight at calving, the heifer will give 1,200-1,800 pounds less milk during her first lactation and probably ensuing lactations as well, Tranel said.

“It’s what we call a Peter Pan problem,” he said. “These heifers are never going to get a chance to fully grow up.”

Tranel said to compute the average weight of 5-10 healthy cows that are in their third or fourth lactation and 100-plus days in milk. This will give farmers an understanding of their herds’ ideal mature body weight.

Tranel said he never recommends that a heifer be bred on age. Instead, he suggests breeding on stature or weight if a weight tape is used. Tranel said to put a post or marker within the heifer pen, so producers can see if the heifers have reached appropriate stature for breeding.


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