Dairy farmers need to adopt a more scientific approach to heifer calf rearing procedures if they want increased levels of profitability throughout an animal’s lifetime.
With dairy cows most profitable during their sixth, seventh and eighth lactations, farmers are constantly aiming to breed longer living, trouble-free, profitable cows that pay for their own replacements and contribute to the long-term profitability of the business.
However, achieving such longevity is easier said than done, although William McNiece, calf specialist with Mole Valley Farmers, claims it is feasible providing calves reach various targets.
“From the day a calf is born, her first two-years of life will incur rearing costs until she freshens and starts to produce milk to help pay back on her investment,” he said pointing out that figures from the Royal Veterinary College, show that a dairy cow usually has to hit 3.5years, until she reaches break-even. From then, she is making a profit.
Research has shown the most profitable age to calve-down Holstein heifers is 23months. At this age, an animal will produce more life-time milk yield and also survive for more lactations within the herd. 
Mr McNiece compared the financial differences associated with calving-down heifers at 23months compared with 27months. Mole Valley Farmers estimate a daily rearing cost over the 24month and 27month period will average £2.87p per heifer per day. This equates to £87.25p per month with a rearing group of 40 heifers therefore cost an additional £3490 per month. 
“Rearing heifers to calving-down age is a huge investment,” said Mr McNiece. “Rearing 40 heifers for an additional four months until the group reached 27months of age will cost an extra £13,960. 
“Having heifers freshen three or fourth months earlier reduces the costs involved in feeding, housing, bedding and labour. However, heifers would also be producing milk at a younger age and making a financial return on investment rearing costs.
“An individual heifer yielding 30 litres per day, with a milk price of 28p per litre, will provide milk sales of £252 per month or, produce £1008 worth of milk over the additional four-month rearing period. The ‘opportunity cost’ for farmers to rear 40 heifers over this period equates to an earlier return on milk sales of £40,320 or, an additional rearing cost of £13,960.” 
Mr McNiece said individual heifer rearing costs can vary from £1073 to £3070 with a mean average cost of £1819. This is based upon a wide variety of systems and age-dependency from 21months at first calving compared to some animals not achieving milk production until four-years of age. Furthermore, he said 14% of live heifers born fail to achieve first calving and a further 15% of first lactation heifers fail to reach second lactation.
Heifer rearing best practise requires a structured and strategic approach with defined set-targets to achieve optimum results. Strong emphasis should be placed on a triangular approach involving nutrition; management and health and environment. There is not a single “silver-bullet” solution and a step-by-step approach will bring the required results Mr McNiece said.
Record keeping and health and welfare management are important factors. Simple ideas such as recording the heifer’s date of birth on ear-tags helps identification and management procedures. Ideally, calves should be housed in single pens until weaning and aim to have consistent growth weights. Having a healthy calf is the key to her achieving future genetic potential; calves with poor growth-rates or illness are more likely to die young or fail to conceive at 15months.
Heifers should be housed in a dry and moisture free-environment to reduce the risks of pneumonia and diseases. They should be reared in groups of 15 animals until conception-age and fed to achieve live-weight gain targets. Best feeds include straw and concentrates until five months then grazed and fed 1-1.5kgs of 16% P concentrates. If possible, Mr McNiece advised weighing the calves every six weeks to feed for target live-weight gain.
“Farmers should aim to have heifers freshen at 22- 24months of age and weigh 590kgs or 90% of mature bodyweight at calving. This will help a milking heifer to achieve an easy transition into the herd; remain healthy and robust and live a healthier, longer, more productive life. A healthy calf becomes a healthy cow and leads to increasing levels of profitability,” Mr McNiece concluded.