A healthy calving program is an integral part of a strong dairy business. Especially now that milk prices are low, losing calves or missing conceptions will take a toll on your bottom line. Dyecrest Dairy on the Front Range of Colorado has had great success in keeping their registered herd full of replacements. Dairy owner Terry Dye has entrusted the A.I. and calving aspect of the dairy to his daughter, Amanda Dye, for the past 20 years.
Amanda Dye has clear-cut objectives and goals for her A.I. program. She gets her heifers bred at 12 months and maintains a 75 percent conception rate at first service. This is possible because the heifers are at least 900 pounds when they are bred.
“We have pretty much always bred at 12 months, but the heifers are well-fed,” Dye says. “We make sure they are growing enough.”
When selecting which sires to use, Dye uses bulls with high net merit, usually a score around 650. And she uses sires with high protein scores.
“The main thing I am concerned about is production,” says Dye, noting the dairy has a rolling herd average of 29,583 pounds of milk and 897 pounds of protein. “I don’t put in production, but I use 35 pounds of protein and above. That helps me get the high-production cows. Pounds of protein is more heritable. I also add in minimal udder traits.”
Most of the A.I. bulls they use are above the 90th percentile. The herd genetics continue to improve because every cow gets bred with the best bulls.
“Every cow on our dairy is created equal, to me,” says Dye. “Whether she scores 60 points or she’s an excellent cow, I breed each cow the same. I pick out a group of bulls and I think I can breed those bulls with any cow, regardless of type and production. If she’s the best cow or the worst cow, chances are they were bred to the same bull.”
With a fully registered herd since 1972, the Dyes are able to sell some of their top bulls to other dairymen for breeding. The top merit bulls on the farm will clean-up any heifers that have lost pregnancies; however, cows will never see a bull for clean-up. Their genetics have also given rise to opportunities with embryo transplants. Ten of their cows are being flushed for A.I. contracts, and their own virgin heifers are used as recipients.
When looking for employees to help with calving and taking care of the calves, Dye prefers to have women handling these animals. She has hired men over the years, but she prefers the women she has working for her now. Her lead calf raiser has been with the Dyes for almost nine years now.
“I just think they have that maternal instinct and that compassion and empathy toward the newborn calves,” Dye says.
“Especially when a calf has to be weaned or vaccinated and can get aggressive, men [because they are bigger and stronger] have a tendency to get aggressive with the calves and possibly hurt them,” says Dye, who currently has three women working with her calves. “The girls just seem to handle them better.
“Especially with the newborn calves when they get colostrum, you know how slow they are, the girls have a tendency to be more patient standing there dealing with the newborn calves,” Dye continues.
She has high expectations for her calf raisers. In 2008, Dyecrest Dairy had a calf mortality rate of 1.5 percent. Her criteria for that figure puts that number into perspective.
“Different people have different ideas [on how to figure mortality rate]. We keep every single calf that’s born. If it’s breathing, we raise it – heifer, bull, free martin, preemie or whatever it is,” says Dye, who raises the lowest 80 percent net merit bulls as steers and sells them as light feeders. “I tag it right after it’s born, and if I tag it and it dies, I take it off the girls’ mortality rate.”
At birth, the calves are allowed to stay with the dam for up to 12 hours depending on the milk schedule.
The low mortality rate is due in part to an “extremely thorough” vaccination program.
“We are obsessive about our vaccinations. Every single animal gets what she needs when she needs it. We don’t let that slide at all.”
The calves that are born on the dairy are put into calf hutches until weaned and then put into group pens. The hutches are not cleaned before putting a new calf in. This is due to the dry climate in Colorado. They also only clean out their maternity pen once a month. Twelve percent humidity and nearly 300 days of sun a year tends to keep the calf pens dry and sterile.
Dye’s calf-raising tips
A few years ago, the Dyes took a suggestion from a supplier to pasteurize waste milk for the calves. Any animals producing unsalable milk are now milked in a separate barn, and that milk is put in a 500-gallon bulk tank with copper tubing in it. The copper tubes are hooked up directly to the broiler and heat the milk to 145ºF to kill any of the bacteria. This tank is a convenient way to feed the 300 calves they usually have on milk at a time.
“We check the milk once a week to make sure it’s killing everything it needs to.”
Another helpful tip came from a calf-raising operation. Every day at noon, the women will go out and feed a bottle of electrolytes to the calves that are five days to two weeks old. While giving this bottle to the calves, the calves have to get up and move around, which also allows the women to look at the calf and make sure the animal is healthy. This helps to catch early signs of scours or other diseases. Dye explains that noon is a good time because it’s a few hours after the morning feeding and a few hours before the night feeding.
“If you make it part of their schedule, where they have to go out there and get the calves up and feed them, then it’s more likely to get done.” PD