Improving Heifer Rearing Through a Data Driven Approach

Conducting a comprehensive audit of the Jersey heifer rearing process on one Scottish farm revealed health and nutrition issues that it is now successfully addressing. First Published in British Dairying

Improving Heifer Rearing Through a Data Driven Approach

Switching from purchased heifer replacements to on-farm rearing caused a few issues at Ingleston Farm, Dumfriesshire. So Herd Manager Calum McGinley implemented a data driven approach - with  significant benefits. The farm currently houses 450 Jersey cows, with 385 in milk, and 270 Jersey heifers, along with beef cross calves from the dairy. Previously, the team purchased heifer replacements for the dairy unit, but in 2022, they decided to rear  their own replacements.

The initial rearing process didn’t go as smoothly as anticipated, as the herd faced several health issues. To address this challenge, Calum enlisted the expertise of Julia Wadeson, Heifer Rearing Consultant at Advanced Ruminant Nutrition, in March 2023. He had already worked with the firm on the milking herd and decided to conduct a comprehensive audit of the heifer rearing process.

“We encountered difficulties with the Jersey calves, particularly in terms of their early development,” he says. “We were spending too much on medicines and losing too many replacements. Julia helped provide us with a fresh perspective.”

A holistic approach
Attention to detail is crucial in heifer rearing, says Julia.  “We adopt a holistic approach, looking not just at nutrition, but at calf health, environment, and management. 

“We offer in-depth reports based on data-driven insights - our analysis doesn’t solely focus on calf data, but also identifies any issues within the milking herd that may affect the rearing stage.”

In the case of Ingleston Farm, she identified a significant opportunity to improve the calf mortality rate, primarily caused by nutrition-related problems, scours and pneumonia. 

“Given the fragile nature of Jersey calves and low body fat reserves, their susceptibility to these challenges is heightened,” she says. “Therefore, prevention in these areas became a key focus. Since the team was just starting to rear its own replacements, it was the perfect time to establish a solid foundation.”

Key performance indicators To effectively target the team’s goals, Julia helped set key performance indicators (KPIs). Considering Jerseys’ smaller size, the target for daily liveweight gain from birth to calving was set at 0.7kg/day.  The team expected the highest growth rates during the pre- and post-weaning period, if calves remained healthy and were properly nurtured during their first six months, when feed conversion  efficiency is at its peak. 

Heifers continue to grow through-out their first two years, while also carrying a calf, so need proper feed-ing to ensure they calve at 85-90% of their mature body weight. Julia also set up several simple protocols around nutrition and thecalf environment, which could be easily followed by anyone responsible for feeding calves, ensuring accuracy, notes Calum. “She also discussed the findings with the whole team, getting everyone on board with her plan to reduce morbidity and mortality rates.”

Colostrum management
One area of focus was colostrum management, says Julia. “We conducted blood tests through the vets to assess the success of passive immunity transfer, and established an ongoing protocol to ensure accuracy and consistency with colostrum management.

“We recommended increasing the amount of colostrum fed from 1-1.5 litres to 2.5 litres per feed, providing two feeds within the first 6-12 hours. This approach guarantees that the calves receive sufficient antibodies and other vital nutrients like growth hormones, growth factors, and colostral fat.” 

Calves get the dam’s colostrum initially and then pooled colostrum for two days – and were already receiving transition milk after colos-trum, which provides a highly nutritious,  energy-dense start. Depending on colostrum quality, the team used a replacement, with a traffic light system indicating the appropriate feeding amount and  need for supplementation.

Milk replacer
Julia’s initial audit found scours and pneumonia were major problems for the calves, and she iden-tified issues with the milk replacer. The calves were being fed a milk replacer that did not meet their nutritional requirements, leading to malnourished calves struggling with cryptosporidiosis and pneumonia.  The milk replacer being used contained 20% skimmed milk powder, which hindered the formation of a functional casein clot essential for milk digestion. It also lacked sufficient energy, which did not suit the Jersey breed. To address this, she recommended increasing milk feeding to three litres in the morning and evening, providing 900g of calf milk replacer/day. This adjustment, combined with the introduction of Advanced Calf Energy, a 100% dairy protein and 50% skim high-fat powder, successfully eliminated nutritional scours.

“It is crucial to provide energy through milk as calves rely on it for survival, warmth, and immune function,” she explains.  “Calves display disease symptoms when the disease challenge exceeds their ability to cope with it, emphasising the importance of combining good nutrition with a clean, warm, and dry environment to maintain calf health.”

In terms of the calf environment, Julia discussed minimising movements in the first few months, by moving calves from individual pens to igloos at 7-10 days old.  Here the team increased the milk replacer over seven days, from two litres/feed in individual pens up to three litres/feed in the igloos.

“We adjusted the weaning period and implemented weaning over 21 days, to stimulate dry feed intakes pre-weaning and negate any setbacks once off milk,” notes Julia.

“Calves are now kept in the igloos for a week after weaning, to minimise stress, before they are moved into group housing.”

The team also implemented new rehydration protocols for sick calves, as the rehydration solutions fed originally were exacerbating the problem.  They now isolate calves that are scouring, and give an oral rehydration solution (ORS) which will actively rehydrate them faster. Calves are given each dose between milk feeds, mixing the ORS into water and not milk. 

The results achieved so far have been positive, says Calum. “The high-energy powder has significantly improved the calves’ immune status and dramatically reduced morbidity and mortality rates.” Mortality has dropped from 3% to 1.6% - and  medicine costs have been cut by 20%.  “All vet visits since the changes have been routine with no extra call outs for poorly calves. The calves are now stronger, full of life, and a pleasure to rear.”

For further information, please contact Julia Wadeson on 07930 885851.

(Picture at the top Ingleston Farm’s calf rearer Malcolm Forster and consultant Julia Wadeson)


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