The importance of getting calves off to a good start is not a new concept. Because calves are an investment in the herd for years to come and the heifer enterprise accounts for 15-20% of the cost of milk production, it is critical to allocate the time and resources for them to thrive.
What does success look like in calf and heifer management? Ideally, calves should double their birth weight by weaning, and morbidity and mortality rates should be low. The Dairy Calf and Heifer Association (www.calfandheifer.org) established Gold Standards for calf and heifer management. These guidelines provide excellent resources for evaluating the calf and heifer enterprise.
Consider the many ways that calf housing and management varies within the dairy community. Facilities for calves include hutches, individual pens, and group housing. Some are raised indoors, some outdoors. Some barns have natural ventilations, others mechanical. Bedding materials may be sawdust, shavings, or straw. Farmers have liquid diet choices of milk replacer, saleable milk, waste milk, and/or fermented colostrum. Calves are fed milk or replacer using a nipple bottle, bucket, or an automatic calf feeder. Weaning strategies vary and may include grain intake, age, and/or size. Health programs differ widely based on local conditions and veterinarian recommendations.
Calf and heifer recordkeeping is another area with wide variation between farms—and one in which many farms have an opportunity for improvement. Although basic functions may be accomplished using written records, this system has limitations. It is much easier to sort and summarize data if records are kept in an electronic format using spreadsheets, PCDART, or other software geared toward the heifer enterprise.
Obstacles to having more complete calf and heifer records include: time that it takes to record and analyze data, inefficient means of organizing the data (technology), and inconsistency in identifying diseases, treatments, and outcomes. The more individuals recording data, the more likely that consistency issues will arise unless a clear protocol for recording information is in place. A national standard on recording health information does not exist, so farmers should work with their veterinarian to develop a standard, consistent way of recording health information.
A manager could use a calf and heifer information system to quickly record life and health events, easily look up information on individual animals, summarize health events, and then use the summary to evaluate progress toward meeting herd goals. Information collected can be used to make culling decisions, evaluate individual and overall calf health, and troubleshoot problem areas.
When designing or revising a recordkeeping system for calves and heifers, first consider the questions that need to be answered. For example, what is the mortality rate? What is the morbidity rate? What are the average daily gains by group/pen? What is the average age at first conception? What diseases are most problematic in the herd? What group(s) of heifers are these diseases affecting? When poor doers are identified, are there any health events (e.g., pneumonia, scours) in their health histories? Once the basic questions are known, the data that needs to be collected becomes more apparent. This data may include: growth measurements (weight, height), vaccinations, health events including date, treatment and outcomes, reproductive events, and mortality information (date of death, necropsy results).
The overall goal of the heifer enterprise is to economically raise heifers to be of adequate size and body condition to calve at a reasonable age and to produce high levels of high quality milk during the first lactation. A complete recordkeeping system would help dairy farmers achieve this goal.
Virginia Cooperative Extension materials are available for public use, reprint, or citation without further permission, provided the use includes credit to the author and to Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, and Virginia State University.
Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Virginia State University, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Edwin J. Jones, Director, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg; M. Ray McKinnie, Administrator, 1890 Extension Program, Virginia State University, Petersburg.
July 1, 2016