The Dairy Authority LLC., Greeley, Colo., and five other partners took a chance five years ago and bought a small former feedlot north of Fort Collins with the idea of raising dairy heifers their way. So far, the idea has panned out for the business which provides veterinary services, training and laboratory analysis for the dairy industry.

Greg Goodell, DVM, of the The Dairy Authority LLC, says the heifer operation has 4,000–4,500 heifers on hand at any given time. The facility receives heifers around 4–5 months of age and returns them as springers. Heifers stay at the facility for approximately 16 months.

“Most of the important things in a pre-breeding-age heifer occur the first 24 hours off the truck through the first month,” says Goodell. All heifers are screened for persistent infection with bovine viral diarrhea virus (PI BVD) when they arrive. At this operation it’s not only mandatory to test for BVD PI, but Goodell requires the use of non-pooled testing.

“Despite the use of PCR in pooled testing methods it continues to have a high degree of false negatives,” Goodell explains. The first couple of years at the facility Goodell had the opportunity to run individual IDEXX ELISA tests on approximately 800 heifers that had been tested using pooled PCR. “We found two positive heifers in this group using the individual ELISA that had been called negative on the pooled PCR,” Goodell says. “Two may not seem like a lot, however, if you take into consideration that a heifer is only tested once and that a rate of one positive out of 1,000 appears to have a significant impact on health and reproduction, then two positives called negative by pooled PCR is too many.”

Vaccinations

Heifers at a custom grower are obviously not in a closed system. The USDA National Animal Monitoring System Dairy 2007 report indicates that nearly two-thirds of operations that sent heifers off the operation for rearing (63.8%) sent them to facilities where they did have contact with cattle from other operations.

That being the case, controlling disease in heifers that arrive from herds that are hundreds or even thousands of miles a way becomes paramount. Goodell’s operation vaccinates for all of the major viruses, Salmonella, Clostridia and leptospirosis. “We believe primarily in modified-live vaccinations, however, there is some compelling data suggesting a combination program (modified-live and killed) may yield some good results as well,” Goodell notes.

Heifers are vaccinated for viruses, lepto and Clostridia upon arrival, four weeks later and then boostered a year later. While you can see just about any disease complex in heifers this age, the most common disease in this age group of heifers by far is pneumonia, says Goodell, followed by diarrhea and then eye/ear problems.

Communicate with dairy of origin

Goodell works with the originating dairies and their herd veterinarians to initiate a “pre-arrival” vaccine protocol at the dairy before heifers ever arrive so that protection against Pasteurella and Salmonella are already on board when the heifer arrives. “We have the most successful heifer outcomes when the pre-arrival program is followed,” Goodell says. “Compliance with this is sometimes an issue so we try to keep communication open by sending monthly health event reports as well as monitoring weight of heifers at arrival and throughout the program.”

That communication extends to the condition of heifers on arrival where Goodell says that the loads are graded. If there are too many heifers under-weight or there appear to be more pneumonias, lameness or other diseases off the truck than there should be, the owners are contacted immediately.

“The biggest recommendation I make to clients for heifers of this age group is to pay the same amount of attention to them as they do their lactating cows with respect to disease monitoring,” Goodell says. “Most producers do not monitor or record the number of treatments given to calves. This is especially important if the calf is being raised off-site. Case definitions should be laid out and a review of health events should be done from time-to-time to ensure the heifer programs are on track.”

Goodell sends “poor-doer” reports back to the producer monthly solely based on ADG and many times these calves have no previous information recorded (health events, vaccinations, treatments, etc.). “This makes it difficult to know where to start when trying to troubleshoot a heifer program,” he notes.

Nutrition

Proper nutrition all the way through the heifer raising program is important. Goodell monitors the status of the heifer, her nutrition and her overall progress by watching average daily gain (ADG). Heifers are weighed at arrival, at about 11 months of age and if there are no problems, then not again until the week they leave.

“We use ADG to monitor nutrition status. We shoot for an ADG from arrival to 22 months of 2.0 pounds of gain per day,” Goodell explains. “I was told five years ago this was too aggressive, however, this has not been proven out in the heifers. We’ve watched milk production and breeding on heifers returning to the dairies under this program and they have performed as good and in many cases better than previously.” Goodell says under this program heifers calve on their home dairies around 22–23 months of age at 1,400 pounds.

Goodell also uses ADG to identify heifers that are not growing well. “Whether on the home dairy or a heifer grower operation slow-growing heifers or even chronic heifers tend to get lost in the system,” he says. “These are the heifers that we find open or early pregnant when they’re 18–20 months of age. By that time we’ve wasted a lot of money on feed, labor and everything else.” Goodell finds these heifers by setting a minimum ADG a heifer must achieve. If a heifer is not gaining at least one pound per day, she finds herself on the “check” list, and he says most often these heifers are culled.