Lowering age at first calving attitudes change for better

Farmers are beginning to recognise the benefits of calving at 24months in order to improve efficiencies, but figures suggest there is still scope for more to improve management further.

As part of the “Dairy Youngstock Project – Wales”, 75 Welsh dairy farmers were surveyed in April – May 2015. Vet Owen Atkinson, of Dairy Veterinary Consultancy, who carried out the survey says most farmers recognised calving at 24 months was a key success factor for heifer rearing.

As published in the Youngstock Toolkit, Mr Atkinson found that most farmers know that calving at two years means carrying less stock and the period in production is longer if they calve younger and if heifers calve younger, they do better, live longer and get back in-calf easier. Research by AHDB Dairy & RVC shows the lower the age at first calving, the lower the rearing costs (see graph below). However further analysis of Welsh farm data showed although age at first calving was firmly on people’s radar, what they were saying and doing were not necessarily the same. Mr Atkinson said “Farmers were asked what their intended first service age was, and there was always a two-month lag between what they said and what they did. This means they will never meet the target AFC.

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More findings from the Dairy Young Stock Project – Wales suggests one of the main reasons farmers may be missing targets is due to them underestimating the size of heifers for service. About 50% of heifers weighed at 13 months on the project farms were big enough for service, yet they may not have been served until a later date. The majority of farms didn’t weigh and their perception of size was not in relation to reality. Often they were waiting for the animals to be bigger when they didn’t need to. Mr Atkinson said that this highlights the benefits of measuring & monitoring.

Mr Atkinson also emphasised that there is a need for change in mind set when farmers are assessing batches of youngstock and adopting a similar approach as you would milking cows. Many farmers focus on the biggest heifer which is not in-calf rather than focusing on the smaller ones that need serving. If farmers only focus on 16 to 17 month old animals, they will miss the 13 to 15 months’ target group.

The Welsh project also highlights the benefits of investing in the milk feeding stage, the higher the 8-week calf, the lower the average age at first calving (see graph2). Farmers with higher 8-week weights, were also more likely to feed more than 750g of milk solids per calf per day at peak milk feeding.

The results between farms was hugely variable, with some farms feeding as low as 375g of solids per calf per day and some as high at 1.2kg. On average calves weighed 78kg at 8 weeks, which meant they were achieving 700g daily live weight gain versus the target of at least 800g. Mr Atkinson said this would suggest the average farmer is not feeding enough to achieve the right service weight across all heifers. If you want to get all heifers to the right weight for service at 13 months, you need to feed more than 750g milk solids a day.

However irrespective on milk solids, those farmers who fed more consistently – in terms of volume, timing, temperature and concentration – had the highest 8-week weight. Those farmers who had 8-week weights also had higher health scores.

Mr Screen Shot 2016-07-14 at 20.40.04Atkinson says overall none of the farms in the survey ticked all the boxes therefore in an ideal world all farmers should take a critical look to see if they’re doing everything right with their Youngstock rearing.

At a time when milk prices are at an all-time low focusing on AFC at 24 months is one of the most effective ways to improve efficiencies. If heifers do not reach the target weight at serving and calve at 30 months this could costs an additional £585 per head.

Read full Youngstock Toolkit 2016