‘Programme’ your heifers to save money.

For many dairy herds rearing quality replacement heifers is a considerable part of their business. With a huge and ever demanding effort to produce a healthy, highly productive long lasting herd, it is crucial to have the initial stages of growth right.

It is no surprise that some farms send their calves away until they are ready to come back in to the herd – alleviating the farmer’s headache of calf rearing at home, but simultaneously adding costs which could be avoided.

Over the years breeding and genetics have transformed the world of milk production, with modern day dairy cattle now having immense genetic potential that producers can significantly benefit from in terms of life time performance. Genomics, in particular, has opened up a whole world of genetic potential before there are even any heifers milking. (A topic to be discussed in a future DTS article.)

The potential of a herd’s future productivity can often be compromised when faced with increased pressure to economise within a continuing volatile market; leaving producers asking the question: how we can be more efficient, reduce costs, but improve our performance?

I believe the answer in the case of heifer rearing is improving efficiency and inputs in crucial areas of the process (the first 10 weeks’ of life) which effects have an instant positive impact on the economics of the business in the short term and offers even greater rewards in the long term.

Short Term Benefits 

  • less disease/health issues less diarrhoea, respiratory disease (less antibiotics/vet)
  • improved mortality
  • improved growth rates/ optimal rumen development
  • reach key targets i.e. weaning/ bulling age weights
  • reducing age at first calving

Long Term Benefits

  • higher milk yield
  • higher lifetime production
  • improved fertility
  • improved herd health/longevity (strong durable cows)

LifeStart Programme

Wynnstay are now involved with LifeStart – a dedicated new programme from Trouw Nutrition, focusing on harnessing the genetic potential of dairy cattle at a young age with metabolic Lifestart Logoprogramming, and refining practical farming methods with scientific principles and research.

The efficiency and input starts with focusing on the calf in its first 10 weeks’ of life and applying the LifeStart programme. The metabolic programming which determines the potential of an adult cow in later life is pre-programmed during the vital first weeks. (The colostrum is the most important foundation to any calf’s life so drinking 10% of body weight of quality colostrum in the first 6 hours is vital to the success of the LifeStart programme) enabling it to grow quicker, resist common diseases and increase its productive potential as a cow.

The 5 aspects of LifeStart are the 5 C’s:

  1. Colostrum: 4-5 litres within first 6 hours
  2. Consistency: feeding according to the LifeStart programme
  3. Comfort: dry, bright, soft and well ventilated
  4. Calories: minimum 150g/l of ‘LifeStart compliant’ quality milk replacer
  5. Cleanliness: hygienic birth and housing

Applying these 5 critical control points will ensure the correct nurturing of calves from the day they are born and can lead to reductions in many of the problems faced in the early stages of heifer rearing. LifeStart aims to reduce calf mortality rates to less than 5%, incidence of diarrhoea to less than 10% and respiratory problems to less than 10%.  All this has a direct impact on the cost of rearing calves with less mortality and improved calf health.

Managing the nutrition and intensive milk feeding with high quality ‘LifeStart compliant’ milk replacer holds the key to unlocking targeted improvements in calf growth and performance and programming the calf for the rest of her life.

It is important to measure this performance to realise the benefits of an accelerated feeding programme. To fully understand that calves are most efficient in the first weeks of life we can compare calves on the programme with ones who are forced to play ‘catch up’ by being fed concentrates after weaning.

Trying to compensate for poor growth rates in the first weeks is a very expensive and inefficient method of rearing replacements.


Holstein Friesian Jersey
Age (months) Weight (kg) Withers height (cm) Weight (kg) Withers height (cm) Weight (kg) Withers height (cm)
2 76 87 72 84 55 78
4 127 96 120 93 95 89
6 180 104 162 100 130 94
12 340 124 285 118 220 109
15 420 129 350 122 265 114
18 490 133 405 130 305 119
21 545 137 470 132 355 120
24 (pre calving) 636 140 535 134 395 122
24 (post calving) 568 140 485 134 350 122

Table 1: Heifer height and weight targets for the main dairy breeds (DairyCo, 2010)

Achieving target weights at weaning and bulling are essential and consistent accelerated feeding can potentially lead to calving at 23 months of age compared to an average of 26 months – which clearly has a huge financial benefit. DairyCo report that rearing a heifer in the UK now costs on average £1,819.01: a daily cost of £2.31. A reduction in 90 days would be saving £207.09 per animal in rearing costs alone; which when spread across a herd of 250 comes to £50,000.

DairyCo (April 2015) research reported that heifers calving at 23 to 25 months produced almost 7,000kg more milk and spent 11% more of their lives in milk (45% vs 34%) over 5 years compared with heifers calving for the first time at over 30 months(RVC), thereby adding another financial benefit with improved milk yields.

The LifeStart research is showing the impact of efficiency, and how investing in areas which have the biggest effect on performance can be a smart way of economising and making your herd a more profitable enterprise.

Written by Tom Stephenson – Dairy Technical Specialist

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