Dairy producers have probably lost count of how many times they have heard the benefits of calving heifers at 24 months. Yet most still fail to hit that target, attracting extra costs of about 1.18ppl.
Why are so many still falling short? Is it because producers do not appreciate the extra £760 in costs in feed to rear a heifer to the UK average of 28 months rather than at the recommended two years?
Or is it because the costs are usually hidden in the accounts rather than highlighted on a milk cheque or identified on the books as an actual heifer rearing cost?
Perhaps it has something to do with tradition and the way it has always been done? Or maybe it is just a perception that an older, stronger heifer will go on to perform better in later life?
Unfortunately, the latter argument does not follow through, as there is compelling evidence to prove a heifer calving at a younger age will earn you far more money.
She will be more productive and fertile, live longer, be easier to calve and, critically, she will milk for more of her lifetime.
It is certainly difficult to say why the age at first calving has sat so doggedly at 28 months.
But what is for sure is that if the milk price dropped by 1.18ppl, producers would not be happy.
Yet there seems to be an acceptance that this level of loss, which represents the true cost to a herd of allowing first calving to slip from 24 to 28 months, is inevitable. But thankfully it is not.
Unlike the milk price, which is completely outside of most producers’ control, heifer rearing costs can be reduced by adapting management and nutrition.
There are plenty of producers who can prove this point.
Because of the benefits of calving at 24 months, ForFarmers has made it a mission to help producers reach this goal.
The company’s Target 24 campaign involves the ForFarmers youngstock team working with farms across the UK, where they have been offering guidance, setting targets and providing resources to help producers reach each step along the way.
James Hague, ruminant marketing and technical director of ForFarmers, says: “Although every rearing system is slightly different on each farm, particularly in terms of target weights, our protocols are repeatable and can be used to help on any farm.”
Alongside this campaign, ForFarmers carried out a survey in collaboration with Farmers Guardian and Dairy Farmer, from which it sought to understand more clearly what was happening in the area of calf and heifer rearing on UK farms.
Mr Hague says: “We know we can add a lot of value by helping producers back to 24 months, so it is important to pinpoint where the system is not working well.
Breaking down the rearing process into manageable sections makes it much easier to keep heifers on track.” The survey itself uncovered areas with the greatest scope for improvement including weaning and serving by weight and measuring quality of colostrum.
And since about 60% of respondents never weighed their youngstock and their key goal for service was the age of the heifer, basic weight evaluation should be a key starting point on many farms.
Mr Hague says: “It is critically important producers weigh their heifers, at the very least with a measuring tape
Fertility is directly linked to maturity, so meeting target weights is more important to conception and pregnancy than serving at the right age.
We are calling farmers to action because we know there are big savings for them to make.
We have the team and expertise to help them do so and a solid track record of helping our customers achieve.
“We are inviting all producers to join us in achieving Target 24 and driving more than 1ppl off their costs of production.
“The first step is to register and our team becomes your team and together we will strive to achieve your goals.
Cumbrian dairy producer David Harrison, from Dundraw Farm, Wigton, had not been particularly happy with the performance of his heifers, nor their age at first calving.
Milking 650 Holsteins producing 10,000 litres and rearing 240 replacement heifers each year, there was substantial money at stake if performance dipped.
He approached Michael Duncan, ForFarmers youngstock specialist in the north of England, in early 2018 and, by April, the two were working together to lift performance and target calving at 24 months.
Starting calves in hutches, they are moved to igloos at two weeks old.
Grouped in 25s, they are fed through computerised feeders, remaining in igloos until just after weaning.
Mr Duncan says: “The first thing we did was weigh calves so we could see where they were against target.
And because they were falling a wee way short, we worked through the rearing protocols.” Initially fed a whey-based milk replacer, it was clear the youngest calves were not doing well, failing to meet growth expectations in their first two to three weeks of life.
He says: “We moved to the skim-based powder, VITAMILK Rearer, which suited all ages of calf and performance in the early stages quickly got back on track.” Starter pellets were also changed from a product based on cereals to one based on digestible fibre.
This had been found to better prepare calves for transition to a total mixed ration (TMR) and avoid the check in growth often observed.
Moving into a newly constructed heifer rearing unit after eight-week weaning, they remain on ad lib pellets until transitioning to the TMR between three and four months of age.
The TMR comprises wholecrop silage, brewers grains, rape meal, caustic wheat, pot ale syrup and youngstock minerals.
The youngstock unit features a concrete scrape passage at the front with strawed beds at the back.
Open on all four sides, it is said to be ‘airy but never draughty’
Heifers remain in this housing until six to seven months, when they move on to heifer cubicles.
Here, they continue on the TMR, continuing to be weighed until they are ready for service.
With target weights for service of about 375kg, the farm’s figures show heifers were originally ready for bulling by 15 months.
However, by 2019, they had reached their service weight by 12 months and were in fact served a little earlier.
Mr Harrison says: “In 2019 our average age at first calving improved to 22 months and feed costs have come down year-on-year.” Today, the cost of feed for rearing a heifer from birth to service is £396 compared with £561 at the outset.
Feed costs from service to calving have also declined, with some of the changes due to faster growth and the cut in time to service, while changing from grass silage to wholecrop, which is fed at a lower freshweight, also helped drive costs down.
Mr Harrison says: “Nothing we have done has been out of the ordinary, but it works because the right things have been done at the right times to target 24 months.
“Equally, David and his team do a fantastic job.
They pay extremely close attention to detail, are very proactive in managing health and are scrupulous over hygiene.” Mr Harrison says he is delighted with the performance, with the additional bonus of just 1% calf mortality and heifers ‘just keep on growing’
Commenting on shed space and labour which are saved, as well as feed, he says: “The sooner they calve, the sooner they earn. That is exactly what we set out to achieve.”
Visit the series home page for more information