How to Get "Calibrated" Heifers

15 februar 2011

Farmers who are not sufficiently dedicated to breeding heifers cannot expect to achieve the high potential that these cattle were provided with genetically. In our visits to farms, we often see how the interests of dairy cows come first while heifers remain rather neglected.

De Heus devotes great attention to heifers through its breeding plan for young livestock so that heifers calve at the age of 24 months (even earlier). The plan is called the Kaliber plan. It is actually a detailed instruction on how to feed different ages of heifers to fully exploit their growth potential, avoid gaining too much weight, and be ready for the first lactation. The Kaliber plan is divided into four stages with each stage having its own specific recommendations, supported by De Heus commercial products.


Start Stage

This is a category of heifers aged 0 – 5 months. The focus in this stage is to ensure a good start and quickly achieve high daily growth during the milk-feed period. The most important aspects of this stage is to provide high-quality colostrum quickly and in sufficient quantities and use proper milk substitutes, such as Kaliber Milk by De Heus. This is a milk substitute based on whey products that doesn't contain milk fat. Why? Because milk fat fills up calves which then limits the amount of received starter. However, calves should get used to eating larger quantities of feed so that they have no problem switching to roughage. From the third week onwards, you can start to teach them to eat high-quality roughage. Also, calves must have constant access to clean drinking water.


Another important aspect is the provision of tasty starter feed for calves. Kaliber Starter is a molasses granulated starter intended for calves of up to 2 – 3 months of age. For calves, molasses are high-quality feed with an attractive smell and taste. Kaliber Starter ensures proper development of the rumen wall and papillae. The subsequent feed Kaliber Junior is for feeding after weaning and is intended for older calves. It is also granulated and molasses. The ideal ration for calves after weaning is 2 – 3 kg of Kaliber Junior and quality grass hay. If the hay is old, hard, poorly digestible, and low in nutrients, it is recommended (in most cases) that farmers feed the mixture to cows in the early lactation period.

De Heus recommends weaning at 8 months of age when calves eat at least 2 kg of Kaliber Starter and weigh at least 75 kg. The transition to plant feed must be carried out very cautiously so that growth remains high. A common mistake on farms is exposing calves to multiple stress factors during this period which stops growing. In that case, it is usually sufficient to slightly modify the breeding process.


Junior Stage

This is the category of heifers aged 5 – 8 months. It is the most important breeding stage since it has the greatest growth potential. Heifers can gain one kilogram per day. If the heifers fail to utilise this potential, they will never catch up. At six months, heifers should weigh 200 kg. The most important aspect of this stage is ensuring the crude protein content of the feed ration of 17% (this concentration is important for intense muscle growth) and 950 VEM units. Corn silage should account for up to 35% of DMI roughage. Catching up using starchy feed (lots of corn silage, CCM, LKS, or grain) may result in fattening at the end of this stage. Combined with lack of protein, the vast amount of starch in the feed may increase fattening even more. Farmers who prepare special feed for this category of heifers may use the Dairymix series complete feed mixture by De Heus which is molasses, granulated, and contains various amounts of crude protein, including mineral premix. Alternatively, it is possible to use the Rucor series concentrates where farmers provide their own grain for the mixture.


Adolescence Stage

This stage includes heifers of 8 – 14 months of age. It is the period when the body frame (calibre) forms. By the end of this stage, heifers should weigh 400 kg and may be inseminated. Weight is not crucial – a low fat heifer can be 400 kg too. The decisive factor is the combination of weight, BSC, and body frame. Most importantly, the feed ration must contain 16% crude protein and 850 VEM units, as well as high-quality roughage containing corn silage up to 15% of DMI. It is necessary to monitor the physical condition of heifers of this age. As in the previous stage, it is important to keep the crude protein content at 16% and to restrict the starch content. In this feed category, De Heus nutritionists often only apply extra rations of crude protein in the form of Rucor protein concentrate (a combination of soy and rapeseed extract meal, possibly DDGS or a small amount of bran and mineral premix). To ensure a sufficient intake of minerals, farmers should use Bestermine Lacto mineral mix.


Gestation Stage

This stage includes heifers of 14 – 24 months of age. Heifers can be inseminated at the beginning of this stage. Here, the aim is to ensure further development without storing fat. BSC should be around 2.75 points. Well-developed heifers are sufficiently large and capable of delivering healthy calves. Heifers after calving should weigh 570 kg. The ration should contain 15% crude protein and 800 VEM units. It is recommended to maintain a high intake of roughage, ideally without corn silage. Grazing is ideal for pregnant animals. This is the only group of animals for which De Heus recommends grazing. On many farms, cattle of this category usually have a high BSC index with livestock specialists complaining of the pregnant cattle fattening despite not being given anything but mineral mixture. This is due to the fact that these heifers had already fattened at a younger age and now when they are pregnant the effect only intensifies. De Heus recommends that pregnant heifers, in terms of the supply of minerals, are fed the mineral mixture Bestermine Lacto or the protein concentrate Rucor to ensure an extra supply of crude protein.


In a properly calibrated heifer, three ribs and the back line should always be visible. At all ages, the fitness of cattle is mostly influenced by energy content (starch) in the ration and the proper ratio of energy and crude protein. Those not familiar with the standards and proportions for the use of starch can hardly avoid fattening their cattle.

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