There is no one way to raise a dairy replacement. Increasingly I see a wide range of methods used successfully to raise replacements. Goals should be to raise sound animals that will be useful for your herd and to do so economically. Calves can be housed in hutches, individual pen barns, or group fed. Older heifers can be fed hay and grain, TMR, or grazed. They can utilize free stalls or group pens; they can be in a barn, have an outside manger, or be in a field with a wind break. They can be limit-fed high energy diets or full-feed lower energy diets. No matter what the method, we should strive to have them clean and dry with fresh air without drafts.
How to raise a useful animal?
To start with, there are many great possibilities for outstanding genetics available at reasonable cost. Our dairy cattle breeds are improving in genetic merit at an increasing rate. It makes no difference if you choose to raise purebreds or crossbreds. A great place to start is to select from the highest Net Merit (NM$) bulls that are available in whatever breed is used. You can refine the ranking by selecting for Cheese Merit or Grazing Merit, but in all instances, these index rankings place value on high production of solids from fertile and healthy animals with sound functional type. With genomics, there is much more known about young sires today so consider either proven or genomic tested bulls. Sometimes the price difference between these groups is not very great, but the highest rankings are usually in the young sires.
There is plentiful evidence that we should not cut corners on young calves. They need colostrum within minutes to very few hours after birth. The colostrum should be evaluated to be high in immunoglobulins. Many producers now are feeding 4 quarts at the initial feeding. There is new evidence to support some benefit to feed colostrum or transitional milk for several days. After that, pasteurized whole milk or high-nutrient milk replacer will supply more for good early growth than traditional milk replacers.
Early availability of calf starter and fresh water are important. Wean after two pounds of starter intake have occurred for several days and then continue with starter and transition to a high quality grower. The transition after weaning is a critical time as calves socialize and diets change.
While some access to forage in young calves is fine, don’t rely too much on fermented feeds or high forage TMR’s on calves under 6 months of age. A good method is to feed a base line of 6-10 pounds of grain mix depending on breed, and as the heifers grow, let their additional intake to be made up of hay.
After six months we can’t forget the heifers, but if we have done all these things right, it will get easier to manage them. Avoid high energy, low protein diets such as high corn silage diets. Test your feeds, offer a 12-15% protein diet that will support 1.8 ADG and watch the heifers to see if they are getting heavy or are too thin.
How to raise heifers economically?
Due to mortality of calves, low fertility in the herd, or high herd turn over, many producers have felt they could never have too many heifers. Today more and more producers admit there are more heifers than necessary out behind the barn. One of the best ways to trim cost is to stop raising excess heifers. The same genomic test that identifies superior Al sires can be used in the herd to determine the genetic merit of your heifers. You can use the test to identify your best, or you can use it to identify the worst. If you get rid of the low end early, suddenly facilities that weren’t adequate now are adequate. Heifers that are not crowded are easier to keep clean; they will be more uniform in weight with better access to the bunk. Your feed supplies will be more adequate, you will purchase less fed. There will be less labor for the care of those heifers.
Make sure your heifers are growing fast enough. On pasture or confinement systems we should be able to produce heifers that calve between a year and ten months to two years of age. A gain of 1.7 to 1.8 pounds per day for Holsteins is all that is needed to make a heifer that is big enough for this. If you have been calving at 2 years 3 months, reducing to an even two years calving age will reduce the number of big heifers that are eating a lot. You also will have only 90% of the heifers as with the slower program.
If you are limited on facilities, feed, land, or labor, perhaps you should have your heifers custom raised. This is yet another option for raising your replacements. Even then you should pay attention to how things are going. After all they are your heifers, and someday they will be your herd.