For several years, California dairyman Greg Hooker has been aligning his 4,500-cow dairy operation for what he says is a “large shift” in heifer rearing – a focus on quality and not quantity. “In the past, we’ve gotten as many heifers as we can, kept as many alive as we can, raised as many as we can. And if you didn’t need them, then you could sell them,” Hooker says. “The ability to sell springers for a profit – long-term – isn’t necessarily there anymore.”
At one time Hooker was buying and selling replacements like many other dairies, but he decided to close his herd to outside animals three years ago. Since then, he’s focused on rearing a heifer ready to enter the breeding pen at 402 days old.
Incentives from birth to weaning
Diamond H Dairy encourages quality early in a calf’s life. Hooker employs a bonus program that pays employees $50 more per month if they successfully deliver a gallon or more of colostrum to newborns. He evaluates the benchmark with blood tests. His vet randomly samples seven calves born in a month to test their IgG levels. If all of the animals pass, employees get their bonus. If even one doesn’t pass, there’s no bonus.
Hooker says it’s made his calf-raisers much more engaged.
“Both my calf feeders and my maternity pen guys at the beginning of the program would complain that, ‘They came to us sick,’ or ‘We gave it to them but they just didn’t pass.’ ” Hooker explains. “Now I’ve assigned them to collect their own colostrum. When we milk the fresh cows, they collect it, test it, freeze it. They are responsible for it all the way through the system. No more excuses.”
His calf feeders also get a progressively awarded bonus for keeping death loss below 4 percent. $300 is the best reward available, if feeders lose less than 1 percent of the calves raised in hutches.
“I won’t argue with you that they probably spend a little extra money on medication that they probably don’t need to,” Hooker says. “But they keep them alive.”
Calves are fed pasteurized waste milk until weaned at 60 days old. By 70 days, calves are moved out of hutches and grouped into pens of 30. While moving them, Hooker weighs each group in a trailer to monitor the group’s average weight gain. From then on, after every month, one group of calves will be combined with another so that by the time the calves are 5 months old, they will be in a group of 250 or so heifers, about the number of calves born on the dairy in a month.
Dipping a toe in the genomics pool
Earlier this spring, and after much deliberation with his consultants and neighbors, Hooker genomic-tested one group of 5-month-old heifers. It cost him $43 per animal. Even now after receiving the results, Hooker says he’s not sure how he will use the information.
“Theoretically, your heifer herd is at least one generation better than your milking herd. Do you really want to get rid of any of them?” Hooker wonders.
The situation on his dairy is that they won’t be able to raise all of these extra heifers, so he’s hoping genomics will help him find opportunities to identify heifers that offer the most profit potential.
For animals with lower genetic merit, he’s considered culling them early in order to save on feed cost or saving that decision for later and possibly breeding them to beef bulls. He sees genomic testing much like DHIA milk testing but for younger animals.
“You pay a monthly fee to get your cows tested to see how good they are and whether to cull them or not,” Hooker explains. “Genomic testing is similar. You’re paying someone to give you an evaluation on an animal to decide if this animal is going to be profitable or not.”
Hooker says each dairy will have to make different decisions about how to profitably use genomic testing.
“It’s unlike other technologies, such as bST, where you decide, ‘I’m going to use bST and make more milk.’ This is just information. It’s not really profitable in itself. It’s what you do with the information when you get it back. That’s where the profit is.”
Until he figures out what’s best or hears from others more about what they’ve discovered is effective, Hooker says he’s “hesitant to jump in with both feet.”
He says that there are many ways to use genomic information and he’s still evaluating which approach is best for his dairy.
Hooker’s replacements struggle most at 4 to 5 months old – near the age he would be regularly testing their genetic potential if he decides to do so. It could be because it’s a time in the replacement program with lots of changes – moving from one area of the dairy to another, a ration change and a cluster of vaccinations. Still, he says he loses very few of them.
More aggressive first breeding narrows window
The most recent change in Hooker’s heifer-rearing protocol has been to be more aggressive at giving heifers their first A.I. service.
“We’ve always gotten heifers into the barn fairly early – at 22 to 23 months – and they are good-sized at that point,” Hooker says. “But we were being a little less aggressive on using Lutalyse before, letting them go a little longer before they went to the vet if they hadn’t shown heat.”
Still, Hooker is trying to improve his dairy’s age at first calving, saying it’s still a bit too wide.
“We’ve been talking a lot about trying to get heifers bred in a timely manner and narrow the time when they freshen. Instead of falling between 21 to 28 months, it needs to be narrowed down to between 21 and 24 months,” Hooker says.
Yet his concerns about the heifer reproductive program are small compared to the ever-present challenge of milk cow reproductive efficiency.
“We’ve gotten better in a lot of things,” Hooker says. “But if I could have a magic wand, I’d use it to improve the reproductive performance of my dairy cows.”
Managing heifers a little closer because there is less room for error
Hooker doesn’t bemoan that heifers aren’t often a profit center today. The economics that made those profits have changed – calf ranches have gotten more effective at keeping calves alive, sexed semen readily increases the availability of heifers and feed costs are higher.
He says dairymen must admit that current milk prices leave “less room for error” when it comes to rearing replacements. The industry’s paradigm shift on heifer inventory, he says, is to realize that too many heifers are “a drain on the system.”
“If you’ve fed a poor heifer for two years, you’ve just wasted $1,400,” Hooker says. “When you start looking at how much you spend feeding one heifer each day, it makes sense to manage them all a little closer.” PD