Sector Ruminants

How to achieve herd uniformity for improved dairy farm performance

Calf rearing has become a focal point for dairy farmers, as faster growth in the first weeks correlates with significantly higher milk production in the first lactation. While colostrum and feed intake at weaning are well understood, precise performance metrics often remain unknown due to inadequate record-keeping.

A recent study of 19 farms in Southern England by the Royal Veterinary College in London showed an extreme variation in calf growth in the first six months. The in-between farm daily weight gain variability ranged from 0.23 to 1.25 kg per day, with a reasonable average growth rate of 0.77 kg per day. However, variation in daily weight gain within one herd was also large, with ranges of 0.45 to 1.13 kg per day reported on the same farm. Surprisingly, weight gain from 6–15 months was hardly related to weight gain in the first six months.

Closer monitoring = better management

Modern dairy farming requires a shift from viewing cows individually to managing the herd collectively. This is because management and nutrition strategies tailored to the best performing animals can boost overall herd productivity and profitability. On the other hand, lower performing animals kept in an intensive system will not be profitable, as animals that lag from the start are likely to show lower milk production in the first lactation, and even reduced lifetime production (Table 1). Consistent monitoring will help reduce internal herd variability, making the herd more manageable, more profitable, and more apt to cope with changes.

Calving age (months)Lifetime production (kg milk)# lactations during the lifetime
2231,2303.1
2338,3453.7
2436,1543.2
2532,0853.2
2621,4652.3
2719,9602.1
Table 1: Calving age in relation to lifetime production

Step 1: adequate record keeping

Maintaining low mortality rates is a key indicator of effective calf rearing, showing that basic nutritional and housing needs are met. Mortality rates often rise with larger herd sizes due to reduced individual attention.

  • International studies report stillbirth rates of 6–12% (including deaths within 24 hours) and first-year mortality rates of 6–8%.
  • Ideally, stillbirth and six-month mortality rates should be below 5%, with the best farms achieving rates under 1.6%.

To ensure a uniform and well-developed herd at calving, precise evaluation of heifer performance is crucial:

  • Bodyweight should be measured at birth, six months, and around insemination, with withers height also checked at insemination.
  • Body condition should gradually improve, reaching 3.0–3.5 points at calving. Bodyweight at six months is critical, as higher growth rates before this age correlate with higher milk yield in the first lactation, whereas growth rates after six months do not. Achieving ideal body weight at six months requires consistently high growth rates from birth.
Age (months)Target weight (kg)Withers height (cm)Body condition (5-point scale)
Birth38-4080>2
160-65902.25
3110-1201002.25
6180-2001102.25
14380-4101302.75
22-24570-6001403.0-3.5
Table 2: Suggested target parameters for Holstein Friesians

Step 2: evaluation of the results

Weighing is preferably done at the same moment as another management practice, like vaccination or moving. Plotting the obtained body weights directly in a graph (Figure 1) makes it easy to identify performance trends, and to determine whether specific areas (e.g. certain groups of animals, seasons) need extra attention.

Figure 1: Visualizing results by putting the gathered data in a graph

Some examples of trends and consequent action to take could be:

  • Overall underperformance of all animals:
    • Issue: This trend indicates insufficient feeding levels.
    • Action: Check the supplied milk volumes, the feed intake at weaning, and the prestarter quality. The daily prestarter feed intake before weaning is strongly correlated to the growth during the first week after weaning.
  • Continuous underperformance:
    • Issue: Suggests issues with colostrum management or calving hygiene.
    • Action: Check if each calf always gets what it needs.
  • Seasonal performance variations:
    • Issue: Especially in tougher climates, calves born in summer often perform better than calves born in winter. This outcome can be avoided by good management.
    • Action: Check the calves’ housing (in case treatments and/or mortality rates are higher in winter) and nutrition adequacy (an increase of feed is required during winter).
  • Irregular performance:
    • Issue: irregular performance metrics may indicate a lack of adequate working protocols or inconsistent follow-up. Another reason could be high infection pressure and/or low immunity.
    • Action: use an all-in/all-out system when moving animals, check bedding quality and general hygiene, implement proper colostrum management, check the quality of your milk replacer or prestarter.

Step 3: enhancing uniformity with medium-chain fatty acids

Perfect conditions are rarely achievable on farms, with some underperforming animals as a result. This makes nutritional safety even more important to reduce the number of underperforming animals. A recent field study revealed that medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs) can be a highly effective aid.

  • The trial monitored 52 male Holstein Friesian calves for 10 weeks, starting at 14 days of age .
  • All calves were kept in the same group to maintain a uniform infection pressure.
  • Half of the group were fed a regular prestarter, the other half were fed a prestarter containing MCFAs in the form of Aromabiotic® Cattle.
  • Both prestarter feeds were supplied by automatic individual feeding.

The trial data showed clear conclusions (Figure 2):

  • The animals that received MCFAs needed fewer treatments.
  • Treated calves in the control group showed impaired growth (-6%), while the calves receiving MCFAs did not (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Trial showing medium-chain fatty acids can reduce the number of calves treated and avoid growth retardation of treated calves.

Conclusion

Effective monitoring and data collection are vital for optimizing calf rearing management and selecting superior animals. Tracking weight and using medium-chain fatty acid supplements like Aromabiotic® Cattle enhance herd uniformity and performance. Monitoring on commercial dairies leads to better management decisions, technical insights, and improved economic outcomes.

Your Earlyfeed expert
Harrie van der Vliet
Product Manager Ruminants

This contact was suggested based on the location you are browsing from. You can of course also consult our other contacts and locations here.

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