Managing freshly calved heifers in a separate group is recognised by many as the best way of getting animals off to a good start, but what about taking this one step further and keeping heifers as a separate herd until second calving?
The economies of scale mean this is a practice undertaken by Bettencourt Dairies, one of the largest dairy producers in the USA, farming a total of 60,000 dairy cattle.
At Bettencourt dairy number three, Jerome, Idaho, 3800 first lactation heifers are managed as a separate herd in primarily cubicle housing, before entering a number of different facilities in the region.
By keeping heifers in a separate facility, they have time to become accustomed to being milked, without the stress of being in the main herd, says manager Jeff Ackerman.
“Competition for feed is a big issue for young heifers entering the main herd – by housing them separately, dry matter intakes and reproduction are not held back by older cows.” And by the time cattle enter the main herd, they are ready to compete.
Heifers still express juvenile behaviour at 24 months of age, explains John Cook,Genus ABS. “Because animals on this facility are calving at about 22 months, they are open to bullying from older cows.
“Housing heifers separately has been shown to be hugely beneficial with young animals producing three litres a day more than when group housed.” Conception rates have also been shown to drop by 5% when heifers are housed with cows.
And the benefits are marked at Bettencourt dairy number three with heifers averaging 32kg a cow a day over three milking through a 50:50 rapid exit parallel parlour, with somatic cell counts of 87,000 cells a ml.
“We have a 22% cull rate on heifers, with production the primary reason. We won’t give heifers a second chance when it comes to production — we’ve culled heifers producing 27.2kg of milk a day.
“The economics of keeping poor cows don’t add up. If we don’t like udders or animals have mastitis, we cull, it’s simply not worth putting feed into them and we have enough heifers coming through to cull hard.”
And strict protocols are followed to ensure heifers get off the best possible start. “We have set protocols for all areas – staff know exactly what to do when a heifer has E coli mastitis and exactly what to do when an animal has metritis.” And staff are reviewed monthly for success rates and compliance.
Stock are housed in groups of 300 with low stocking rates a priority. “Keeping low stocking rates is essential – stock must not be overcrowded and given every opportunity to lie down.”
Lameness prevention is also taken seriously with a trimmer on site five days a week, trimming 15-40 heifers a day.
Heifers are on a presych/ovsynch programme, and are achieving a calving interval of 13 months, calving in for a second time at three years of age.
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