Five tips to raise better heifers

To ensure heifer calves become productive cows within 24 months of birth, consider these tips from this past summer's Arm & Hammer Animal Nutrition Heifer Tour. "Today's economy does not automatically give every dairy heifer a lactation career opportunity," says Bob Corbett, a Spring City, Utah veterinarian.

1. Feed calves quality colostrum and plenty of it.

When collecting colostrum, hygiene plays a critical role in reducing pathogen exposure of calves and maintaining high quality standards. Getting enough colostrum into calves is also crucial. Calves should receive 10% of their body weight in their first feeding of colostrum and another 5% at a second, says Corbett. "Research indicates calves not receiving adequate colostrum grow at 2/3 rate of other calves," he says.

2. Don't starve calves.

Corbett says most of the time two quarts of milk or milk replacer twice a day aren't enough. "In the ideal situation, and if labor allows it, calves should be fed 3 qt. three times per day," he says. In hot weather, the trouble comes with increased energy demands and decreased appetite. In cold weather, the energy demands increase while they have a lower ability to digest dry matter. This can be remedied by fortifying whole milk or feeding higher quality milk replacer.

3. Wean calves slowly.

"Not all heifers are ready to be weaned at the same time," Corbett says. He encourages producers to look past tradition and focus more on dry matter consumption than age when weaning heifers. "Calves that are ready to wean should be eating 2 lb. of calf starter per day for three consecutive days before you start to wean them," he says. Wean as gradually as possible.

4. Avoid the long-term effects of illness.

"Good facilities can't replace good management," says Joe Horner, a dairy specialist with Kansas State University. Therefore, a major priority is to keep calves from getting sick to begin with. A recent study from Cornell University showed that calves treated with antibiotics gave 1,084 lb. less milk during their first lactation than untreated calves.

5. Breed heifers at the right time.

Producers should look past tradition of considering age and consider size of heifers when it comes to determining puberty. "Breeding should be initiated when the heifer's wither height is 51''," Corbett says.