Growing profitable heifers: A productive life story

The productive lifespan of dairy cows is short compared to their natural life expectancy of twenty years. The average is very low in most developed dairy industries. This is becoming a global problem that we are seeing occur in many countries across the globe.

Dr. Gavin Staley
Technical Service Specialist
Diamond V/Cargill

Around the globe, there is a growing need to extend the productive lifetime of dairy cows. Not only is it a necessity, but it can be economically and environmentally beneficial. Productive life can be defined as the time from first calving to culling, or when the cow is no longer sufficiently productive.

Unfortunately, the average lactation of most dairy herds is low (2.1-2.2), which means productive life is limited. Many cows still have a replacement or “mortgage” cost when they leave the herd, as their breakeven point is often the 2nd lactation. Healthy mature cows (Lact>2) are most profitable, but too often, heifer pressures and involuntary culls cut us short from reaching our full profit potential.

So, what needs to be done differently? Consider the following areas.

Heifers need to be bred at the right combination of age and body maturity so they can be close to mature size and weight at calving. An aggressive heifer management program will implement the right nutrition to keep heifers growing into productive adults.

It’s easy to get impatient and want to breed heifers early to get them into the lactating herd and have them start paying off their debts as soon as possible. But if long term success is the goal, then making sure the heifers reach the milking string fully prepared to perform will help establish long-term success.

There is a name for these heifers that grow well and are prepared to freshen and thrive as cows—we call them platinum heifers. Set your herd goals to produce as many platinum heifers as possible. Start by setting your protocols to breed heifers by weight, not by age. The right weight is different for each herd and is based on your herd’s average mature weight. To find this weight, weigh third and fourth lactation cows when they are between 80 and 120 days in milk.

With that goal weight in mind, you can develop a calf and heifer management program to achieve the proper growth rates to reach the optimal size in a reasonable amount of time. Since you are going off heifer size to make your breeding decision and not age, it’s important to weigh heifers at regular intervals—birth, weaning, pen moves, etc.—to make sure heifers are progressing toward the goal weight. You can choose to eyeball weights, but scales are much more accurate.

If heifers are bred at their ideal weight, then your heifer management program needs to continue their growth through to freshening. Ideally heifers will be at 95% of mature weight close to calving (DCC>260). Once they freshen (DIM<7) they should still be 85% of mature body weight. Determine the difference between goal and actual weights and adjust by either delaying breeding of virgin heifers or increasing average daily gain.

It certainly is possible for heifers to reach ideal size at an optimal age. It’s also possible to keep first lactation cows growing and developing so they can turn first lactation success into second lactation success, and beyond. But reaching these milestones takes sound management and healthy animals. The right nutrition program from birth through calving and into lactation will help heifers reach growth milestones and fulfill their genetic potential.

In general, cows pay off their heifer rearing bill in their second lactation. Once that bill is paid, profitability goes up substantially.

The productive lifespan of dairy cows is short compared to their natural life expectancy of twenty years. The average is very low in most developed dairy industries. This is becoming a global problem that we are seeing occur in many countries across the globe.

The five key factors influencing herd parity demographic (the five drivers of the total cost of maintaining herd structure) are:
1. Calf value opportunity cost
2. Aged cow cost
3. Lack of maturity cost
4. Herd replacement cost
5. Genetic opportunity cost

Normally, the idea is that younger is always better. But there is a danger if these cows never pay off their “mortgage”. Bear in mind, in the second lactation we finally break even. The breakeven point is the point at which a cow has created sufficient income from milk production to cover the costs of raising. So, the more mature animals, or what we call the “Golden Girls”, are extremely important because they have paid their mortgage and are high producing. What are the requirements to achieve these “Golden Girls”? You want them healthy, fertile, high ECM (>6lbs fat & protein/day), and we need MORE of them.

Keeping healthy cows is vital as it’s one of the main reasons these older girls get kicked out of the herd. Farms decide they have issues and then they leave. However, we need to consider working through the issues and strive to keep some of them regardless. It is important to remember, these mature animals, those in lactation group three, are producing a lot compared to their competition in lactation groups one and two.

Cows that live long, productive lives can be extremely profitable. It’s important to maintain gut health and immunity.

While effective management plays a significant role, proper nutrition and nutritional interventions also play a vital part in paving the way towards a more productive life and generating more Golden Girls.

As a young ruminant, her nutritional requirements and nutritional health needs, are comparable to other young bovines, including beef calves, as they become full-fledged ruminants. It’s important to keep in mind that post weaned calves are still developing their rumens and their diets need to account for this continued development. Supporting optimal health and performance is crucial.

One way to support her health and performance is to incorporate a postbiotic feed additive. A postbiotic has been proven to support balanced immunity, digestive health and development, and overall growth and performance. Be sure to engage your nutritionist and veterinarian for nutrition and management solutions to create a program that’s ideal for your herd.

Extending the productive life of dairies may be a necessity under the current and predicted dairy environment. Achieving this goal requires a high level of management and focused intentionality. Creating the environment that creates and retains more profitable mature cows (“Golden Girls”) along with producing the right number of quality mature heifers (“Platinum Heifers”) is a large part of the Productive Life story.

About Dr. Gavin Staley
As a Technical Service Specialist for Diamond V, Dr. Gavin Staley provides technical and sales support to dairy producers, nutritionists, and feed manufacturers. He is based in Turlock, California.
Before joining Diamond V Dr. Staley spent five years on faculty at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, as a Senior Lecturer in Veterinary Reproduction. Following that he entered the private sector, joining the largest commercial dairy practice in South Africa. Later Dr. Staley and his family emigrated to the United States where he joined a dairy practice in Wisconsin. He later relocated with his family to California in 2003 when he joined Diamond V.
Dr. Staley received his veterinary qualification and earned a specialized degree in reproduction (MMedVet) from the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He also achieved Diplomate status in the America College of Theriogenologists (DiplAct).