Financial Implications of Poor Replacements

Does your system support the successful rearing of dairy replacements? Or do you incur significant performance implications from your reared heifers?

A vital aspect of any dairy business is replacement performance. Several problems can occur during replacement rearing, each of which have significant performance implications that reduce the financial gain available. 

It is crucial that we get the rearing of Dairy Heifers right in order to maximise on farm profitability. Think of it like a production line, it is important that we have quality control in order to maintain a high standard of finished product – in this case a Dairy Heifer. If that Heifer is not going to reach the required standard at any stage during the cycle, we then have to ask ourselves the question is it worth me keeping the heifer in the herd?
A Case Study carried out on 666 heifers in the UK showed a variation in heifer yield of over 8000 litres, with the lowest being 4350 litres and the highest 12620 litres. This meant an average first lactation yield of 8822, meaning the bottom 25% all achieved under 6700 litres of milk during their first lactation.We have to ask ourselves the question, is it worth keeping these heifers in the herd, at the cost of a higher producing older cow or new fresh heifer who is performing well? The evidence would suggest not. As shown within the study, poor heifers led onto poor performance cows which pushed down herd averages to less than 10,000 litres, 500 litres below where it should have been.

So what are the reasons for seeing all these poor heifers? Well one clear reason is calving age. If you see the graph above only 378 heifers calved before 26 months, the remainder had a total of 56910 extra rearing days. If we factor rearing costs in at £1.70 per day, it shows a £97,450 loss in profit potential just by calving heifers down late. However this isn’t the only loss these older heifers are suffering. A study done by Cooke et.al. (2012)(see table) showed that heifers who had their first calf before 23 months had an 86% chance of still being in the herd by 5 years of age, whilst only 33% of the heifers calving after 30 months will be in the herd beyond 5 years of age. The main reason cited for this difference was fertility.
 <23 mo
23-25 mo
26-30 mo
Alive at 5yo
86%
62%
41%
Total MY
25031
20395
16671
Rearing costs
1250
1300
1350
Another issue can be calving weight. Here we should be targeting a weight of 630kg by calving for a Holstein heifer. If underweight by 70kg she will lose 1000 litres of milk during her first lactation, (financially £230) this will generally account for 25% of heifers in an average UK herd. If we apply this to the trial, 166 heifers will be underweight, resulting in a loss of £38,180. Therefore it is crucial that we grow our heifers quickly and efficiently in order to maximise yield through first lactation, and improve the quality of our cow moving into subsequent lactations.
               This weight target links in closely to weaning weight where two times birth weight should be achieved. This gives us a target daily gain of 0.87kg per day. If this is reduced by 100g per day, 300 litres in the first lactation will be lost which is equivalent to £69. So can you really afford to miss weight targets at weaning and calving?
               The final issue to consider is Bovine Respiratory disease (BRD). This can be caused within the first few days of birth as a result of poor colostrum management. It is crucial to get a good colostrum intake into new born dairy heifers at 10% of birth weight within the first 6 hours to get the best absorption across the gut wall. If not achieved, levels of immunity within the calf will be reduced leaving the calf open to disease. Another cause is grouping. This mainly occurs at weaning when calves move out of individual pens into larger groups. A study done in 2010 showed a 4 times greater incidence of respiratory disease in calves moved into larger groups post weaning than what had been seen during the first 60 days of the calves life. Both of these have a negative impact on the levels of BRD and if they are not managed, the effects can be significant. A study done by Bach (2010) showed that heifers with 4 or more cases of BRD had 1.87 greater odds of not finishing their first lactation.
               So in conclusion, poor performing heifers are holding back herd performance due to several factors before the heifer reaches calving age. Therefore many farmers response is to breed more in order to produce more good quality heifers. This leads to increased cost, more heifers leaving the herd in their first lactation, as well as losing older high yielding cows to make space for the underperforming heifers. This results in higher stocking rates, which means management practices are compromised, leading to poorer heifers. This poses the question, should we be breeding more heifers to get the desired level of performance? The clear answer here is no. We should actually be thinking about breeding and rearing less heifers which are more productive and last much longer in the herd. In order to do this we need to introduce clear quality control measures, therefore we should be looking at the following:

  • Are we breeding our heifer from a good dam and sire? A good starting point will lead to a better quality calf and therefore a better quality heifer. There is no point breeding off a cow that is producing 6000 litres. 
  • Are the calves getting sufficient colostrum? 
  • Have calves doubled their birth weight by weaning? 
  • And are heifers calving before 26 months at 630kg?
If all of these measures are achieved we will see a greater number of high performance heifers with a smaller variation in performance. I leave you with this question, can you really afford to not rear your replacements correctly and efficiently?

Written by Will Astley – Wynnstay Dairy Specialist
For more information contact dairy@wynnstay.co.uk

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