Firm foundations key to heifer-grazing success

To ensure that heifers achieve their target age for first calving, supporting and maintaining growth at grass is the focus of one Hampshire-based producer.

Dairy Nutrition
Clive Redshaw and heifers - ForFarmers UK

Providing a consistent supply of supplementary feed throughout the grazing period has helped Clive Redshaw successfully rear heifers at grass and achieve an age at first calving target of 24 months old.

An increasing number of producers will be looking to start rearing youngstock outdoors this year, in response to declining milk prices, increasing feed and bedding costs, and a desire to protect margins.

But as Clive knows, rearing heifers at grass is far from straightforward. Providing youngstock with a solid nutritional foundation preturnout and then consistent supplementary feeding post-turnout is key to achieving good heifer growth rates and performance.

“We run a closed herd, rearing all our own replacements and have always put heifers out to grass,” explains Clive, who milks a 150-cow herd on his unit based near Stockbridge. “While there are several health and cost benefits to rearing heifers outdoors, we’re conscious of the nutritional limitations of grass, particularly later in the growing season.

Foundation period

“That’s why we invest time, effort, and feed into the foundation period of a heifer’s life. And we’ll only turn out heifers when we’re confident that they’ve done most of their growing, their rumens are fully developed and they are used to digesting a foragebased diet. By the time they are turned out to grass the bulk of the hard work has, hopefully, been done.”

The herd is currently averaging 11,700 litres, at 4.45% butterfat and 3.35% protein, with all milk supplied to Blackmore Vale creamery. The unit comprises 485 hectares of mixed dairy and arable ground, with 60 hectares dedicated to grass silage and 45 hectare used for growing maize.

The herd is milked twice a day and fed a TMR all-year-round, comprising chopped straw, grass and maize silage, a bespoke blend, home-treated caustic wheat and minerals. “We’d typically aim for a 50:50 maize:grass silage ratio in the ration, but following a poor maize harvest in 2022 we’ve had to supplement with some Trafford Gold,” explains Clive. “We only feed out once a day, so we now have a Lely Juno robot to regularly push the ration up to the feed fence. Since installing the Juno in January, I’d estimate that we’ve seen cows produce an additional 1.5 litres of milk per day, and feed intakes are up by an average of 3%.” He aims to turn cows out to grass from April onwards, gradually building from morning-only grazing to 24-hour access to the unit’s two six-hectare grazing paddocks.

“We’ll keep the cubicle housing open and once they’ve grazed a decent amount of one paddock we’ll move them onto the next,” says Clive. “It’s a simple system, but it works well and allows us to utilise extra grass during the summer while also giving the cows a chance to spend time outside.”

Heifer grazing

The herd calves all year round and Clive uses genomic testing to assess the potential of all females on the unit and to support breeding decisions.

“We need to breed and rear 50 replacements each year and only the best performing cows and heifers will be served with sexed semen to produce these,” he explains. “Any heifers that aren’t selected for breeding replacements will be served with a Hereford bull and remaining cows will be served by an Angus bull.”

New-born calves are housed in a separate rearing unit where they are fed fresh milk with free access to straw and ForFarmers’ Calf Starter pellets. At eight weeks old they are weaned and moved into a separate youngstock shed.

“We aim, at this stage, to have calves off to a good start and then it’s all about helping young heifers grow efficiently and preparing them for turnout and grazing,” says Clive. He feeds ForFarmers’ Eco Super Rearer 18% protein nut, as well as straw and baled silage, mixed through the feeder wagon.

“Not only does the forage provide much-needed nutritional value, but it also helps heifers to adapt to a forage-based diet, which is vital before they go out to grazing.”

Clive places great emphasis on this foundation period and will only turn heifers out to grass full-time once he’s sure they’re in a suitable condition. “We don’t typically turn heifers out before they’re at least 12 months old,” he says. “Younger heifers may be offered short-term access to the dairy herd’s paddocks, where we can keep a close eye on them.”

Older heifers are turned out in April on to mature, established grass leys. Clive says this helps avoid rumen challenges and stomach upsets that would occur if they went onto the unit’s fresh, high-performance leys.

Weaned heifers eating heifer ration

Buffer feeding

One week before turnout, Clive introduces the heifers to ForFarmers’ VITA Heifer 16% protein rolls, which are fed as a buffer throughout the grazing season,” explains ForFarmers’ Account Manager, Emily Hayes. “Grass intakes alone won’t sustain the growth rates needed to achieve an age at first calving of 24 months old. So it’s important to provide good-quality supplementary feeding while heifers are at grass.”

By building strong foundations and then providing the right nutrition when heifers are at grass, Clive has successfully maintained excellent youngstock performance, with heifers consistently hitting the unit’s age-at-first-calving-target of 24 months old.

“We’ve been using the VITA Heifer 16 rolls for more than 10 years now and opt to feed the rolls at a rate of 2kg per cow, per day throughout the whole of the grazing period,” adds Clive. “This means that, between April and September, heifers receive a consistent amount of supplementary feed every day, which helps maintain steady growth rates.

“I feed out by hand and this provides me with the opportunity to check the heifers every day and assess their progress. It’s a setup that works well. The product does a good job and I’m pleased with the results we achieve.”

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