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News > Attention to detail is key to successful heifer rearing on Tyrone dairy farm


Attention to detail is key to successful heifer rearing on Tyrone dairy farm

June 16, 2022

Rex Wilson and sons Jack and James manage a mixed dairy, pigs and poultry farm on the outskirts of Coagh, Co Tyrone.  The farm has been recently selected as a College of Agriculture Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) Technology Demonstration Farm (TDF) to demonstrate best practice in the rearing of dairy heifer replacements.

Gavin Duffy, local CAFRE Dairy Development Adviser, says “the 200 cow all year round calving Holstein herd is currently averaging 9500 litres of milk, feeding 3500kg of concentrates (0.37kg/litre) with 1720 litres coming from forage.  Being a family run business Rex is very keen to give his sons key areas of responsibility and encourage them to make a positive contribution to the management of the farm business. Jack, a recent CAFRE graduate with a BSc (Hons) Degree in Agricultural Technology, has taken a lead role in the heifer rearing enterprise.” 

In an effort to maximise performance Jack, in partnership with his Parklands senior vet Eamon Donnelly, reviewed all aspects of his heifer rearing programme including health, nutrition, and the housing environment.  As a result of this review the Wilsons have identified areas where improvements could be made and have created practical health protocols which document critical management at each stage of the production process. Jack commented “good hygiene was an area in particular where we have focused a lot of attention with really positive benefits. In addition, important information relevant to the heifers and in particular the young calves is documented in a WhatsApp group which was created to keep everyone on the farm informed of events such as calving management, nutrition, health and veterinary treatments.”

Gavin continued “detailed costings for all aspects of the Wilsons heifer rearing is showing it has cost approximately £1500 per heifer calved into the herd which includes all the variable costs such as milk replacer, concentrates, veterinary and grassland with an allowance made for a share of the farms overhead costs. This will have increased now based on the recent rise in input costs. A replacement rate of 23% and an average age at first calving of 23.5 months on this farm requires at least 50 heifers per year entering the milking herd to maintain numbers, with 100 – 120 heifers at varying ages on the farm at any one time.  Research has shown that calving heifers at 24 months or earlier is optimum for economic performance.”

Most dairy farmers are now well aware of how the management of their replacement heifers especially in early life can have a significant impact on subsequent lifetime performance.

Jack further detailed the system on the farm by saying “preparations commence even before the calves are born by ensuring correct dry cow nutrition, the birth of a healthy calf and an adequate supply of good quality colostrum.  Cows and heifers are vaccinated 6 to 8 weeks before calving with Rotavac to protect the newborn calf from the main scour bugs found on the farm.  I feel that the extra effort to ensure good colostrum management has been an area where we have seen the greatest benefits.  All colostrum is tested before feeding using a BRIX refractometer with readings consistently between 23– 30. Calves receive up to 4 litres in the first feed and will receive its mother’s milk for the first 3-4 feeds before being gradually changed over onto Provimilk milk replacer.  During the milk feeding phase heifers are fed for “accelerated growth” receiving up to 1000g/head/day of milk replacer in 6-7 litres of water, ad-lib Hutchinsons 18% CP Easy Start calf pellets plus roughage and clean water.” 

All heifers are weighed at birth and at regular intervals throughout the rearing period to closely monitor performance.  In order to achieve key critical weight targets – 60% of their mature bodyweight or a minimum 400kg at service and 90% of their mature body weight or  620- 650kg at calving  at 24 months old requires an average daily liveweight gain from birth to calving of at least 0.80kg per head per day.  To achieve this, every effort is made to minimise nutritional or health related setbacks.   Gavin concluded “rearing heifer replacements is a costly business but the Wilsons’ attention to detail in all aspects of the rearing process is paying dividends for their dairy business with heifers meeting all the critical weight targets, calving at under 2 years old and their performance in the milking herd has been impressive these last couple of years. Average first lactation heifers are yielding approximately 8500 litres”. Gavin encourages dairy farmers to take the opportunity to visit Wilsons TDF and view their heifer rearing system and discuss with Rex, Jack and James the key management protocols to achieve this success.  For more details and instructions on how to book a visit please check out this link or contact your local Dairy Development Adviser.