The UK-wide initiative kicked off in autumn 2015 with the aim of helping farmers to improve calf survival and increase the number of heifers making it into first lactation.
Twelve dairy farms were enrolled in the project and acted as hosts for a series of farm meetings on best practice heifer management over the two years. Six farms were autumn block calving and enrolled in autumn 2015 and six had a stronger spring-calving bias and enrolled in spring 2016. The growth, health and nutrition of 10 heifers on each farm were also monitored every three months.
It was this growth data which has highlighted the inconsistencies in growth rates within groups of heifers on individual farms and the fact many heifers fail to hit the target growth rates needed to calve in at the most economical age of 24 months.
AHDB Dairy’s technical manager, Andy Dodd, who headed up the initiative says: “72 per cent of all heifers failed to achieve the target of doubling birth weight by weaning and half were not on target at each, three-monthly weigh point. There was also huge variability within groups. For example, on the Dorset farm, heifers were achieving between 0kg and 2kg of daily liveweight gain at six to nine months of age.”
On some farms, 12 to 15-month-old heifers were also only achieving 0.1kg/day, well below the growth rate needed to hit the right weight to calve at 24 months. On average, heifers will need to hit 0.8kg a day to be on track. However this will vary according to adult cow size on individual farms.
Mr Dodd says: “The results from the 12 farms show it is impossible to estimate weights by eye or spot variation in growth within a group by looking into a pen. Regularly weighing animals and managing heifers in weight groups is essential to make sure they stay on track.”
The need to continue to weigh animals at grass was also highlighted by the fact the biggest variability in growth rate was seen at the end of the summer across all heifers. This correlated with declining grass quality and insufficient supplementation.
Mr Dodd says: “The Aberdeen farm’s heifers were really consistent when housed inside on the same diet and as soon as they went out to grass, growth dropped off in some animals. Some were 450kg and others were 350kg.”
However, declining growth rate is not an inevitability of grazing, with some farms achieving good consistency in growth rates while at grass. Mr Dodd believes more work needs to be done to look at the effect of heifer genetics, however he advises closely monitoring weights at grass.
“If you turn heifers out to grass, weigh them at turn out and then weigh 10 per cent of them, two to three weeks later to see if they have grown. Split heifers according to weight at grass and supplement those that need it. There is a marked spread in performance within groups so farmers need to target management better to ensure consistencies in growth.”
Target growth set for the initiative included: