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Don't neglect heifer rearing in an attempt to cut feed costs

Dairy heifer weight and size at calving is critical to both first lactation and lifetime performance, including longevity in the herd. It means that any attempt to cut back on concentrate feeding in reaction to current high feed prices will have substantial, and potentially expensive, long-term consequences.

“Failure to achieve target weight and size at calving will result in small heifers entering the herd that struggle during their first lactation, and might not even reach their second,” highlights Trident technical manager Dr Michael Marsden. “So at this time of the year, it’s important not only to make sure that heifers are still growing well on winter rations, but that you’re also planning a well-managed transition onto grazing.

“Cutting back concentrate inputs for yearlings and delaying service might appear to be a way to save money, but will nearly always be a false economy in the long-run. And for in-calf heifers, there’s simply no option but to properly support pregnancy and make sure they calve down as close to target weight as possible.” 

Faced with high feed prices, it makes sense to prioritise feeding in favour of the milking herd, but it’s also important to continue investment in the herd’s future – the replacement heifers. One option is to preserve forage stocks for the cows by switching dairy replacements onto a straw-plus-concentrates ration until turnout, reducing the need to buy additional buffer feeds for the milking herd during the transition onto grazing.

“In the short-to-medium term, dairy heifers can perform well when fed ad lib straw, as long as it’s part of a properly balanced ration,” Dr Marsden continues. “Supplement the straw with 2-4kg/head of a good quality mid-protein blend or a straight like Scottish maize distillers’ feed, plus around 1kg/head of a complementary liquid feed, such as British beet molasses or Rouxminate, to help palatability and supply additional energy. Make sure to also include a suitable mineral supplement.” 

Table 1 shows example concentrate mixes to supplement heifers fed ad lib straw. The aim should be to produce well-grown heifers ready to calve down at 85% of mature cow weight (i.e. the weight of a third lactation cow), which typically means maintaining a growth rate of 0.85kg/day throughout the period from 10-22 months of age. 

Table 1 – Example heifer rearing rations

Straw-based (ad lib)

10-15 months

15-22 months

Scottish distillers’ maize

2.75

3.00

3.75

4.00

British beet molasses

1.00

-

1.00

-

Rouxminate liquid

-

0.75

-

1.00

Vits and mins supplement

0.075

0.075

0.10

0.10

Energy density (MJ ME/kg DM)

14.1

14.2

14.3

14.3

Crude protein (% of concentrate mix)

20.5

20.7

19.6

20.5

Liveweight gain (kg/head/day)

0.85

0.85

0.85

0.85

Ration cost (£/day) 1

0.74

0.74

0.98

0.99

1 Concentrate and mineral supplement prices correct at time of going to press, bulk loads delivered on-farm within 50 miles of source, prices will vary with load sizes and distance from source.

“Once out at grass, it’s possible for good quality grazing to provide the nutrients needed to grow a Holstein Friesian heifer fast enough to reach around 380kg at bulling, but only under ideal conditions,” states Dr Marsden. “So producers must be prepared to continue providing supplementary feed not only through the transition onto grazing, but also whenever grass supply and quality is below optimum.”

With cereals expensive, Dr Marsden recommends combining a low protein feed like soya hulls or sugar beet feed with maize, barley or wheat distillers’ feed to create a cost-effective supplement for grazed grass. Such simple mixes are also extremely flexible, with the proportion of distillers’ feed increased as grass quality declines to ensure the correct supply of protein to support good heifer growth.

“Most importantly, try to achieve the right balance between efficient grass utilisation and heifer growth rates,” he concludes. “A better milk-to-feed-price ratio may be just around the corner, and you’ll want those first lactation heifers converting feed into milk, not using it to catch up on growth they failed to achieve during a period of frugal heifer feeding.”

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