NAHMS analyzes data on dairy heifer raisers

NAHMS analyzes data on dairy heifer raisers

*Dr. Al Kertz is a board-certified, independent dairy nutrition consultant with ANDHIL LLC based out of St. Louis, Mo. His area of specialty is dairy calf and heifer nutrition and management. To expedite answers to questions concerning this article, please direct inquiries to Feedstuffs, Bottom Line of Nutrition, 5810 W. 78th St., Suite 200, Bloomington, Minn. 55439, or email [email protected]

THE National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) has conducted national dairy surveys at various times, specifically in 1996, 2002 and 2007.

I previously discussed the comparative findings of these surveys as they related to calves and heifers (Feedstuffs, March 10, 2008).

The primary objective of the 2011 NAHMS "Dairy Heifer Raiser" report (data were collected in 2010) was to provide the first comprehensive information on animal health and management practices for heifer-raising operations; other objectives were to evaluate the biosecurity risk and assist in the development of a biosecurity assessment to evaluate the risk of disease transmission.

I will address the primary objective.

The surveyed operations were identified primarily from the Dairy Calf & Heifer Assn. membership list plus interest from individual states. The 21 states represented in the database included those designated as East (Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin) and West (Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, New Mexico, North Dakota, Texas and Washington).

The NAHMS 2007 study found that off-site heifer-raising operations comprised about 10% of dairy operations. Almost half of operations with 500 or more cows raised at least some heifers off site.

Less than 10% of operations in this study had been in business for 21 years or more, while 24% had been in business for one to five years, 33% for 6-10 years and 35% for 11-20 years.

About 33% of operations raised heifers for only one client, while 7% raised heifers for 10 or more clients. Operations in the West had five or more clients. Small (20-99 head), medium (100-999 head) and large (1,000 head or more) operations accounted for 2,666, 42,462 and 432,055 heifers raised during 2010, with 328,686 in the West and 148,497 in the East.

There were three types of heifer ownership: (1) a source dairy that retains ownership of its own cattle (78%), (2) a heifer raiser that buys heifers from the source dairy and sells the same heifers back to the dairy (13%) and (3) a heifer raiser that buys heifers from various sources without selling them back to the sources (19%). Note that throughout this column, the sum of percentages may exceed 100% because of rounding or an overlapping of categories.

The primary challenges facing most operations were: heifer health, client relations, payments from producers and feed cost/availability.

The majority (54%) of operations obtained weaned heifers and shipped out pregnant heifers. However, 22% of eastern region operations obtained preweaned heifers and shipped out pregnant heifers, compared to only 7% in the western region.

The average-sized operation raised 2,217 heifers, ranging from 61 for small operations to almost 7,000 for large operations. More than 90% of operations in the West housed calves in outside hutches/pens, while in the East, about 31% of operations housed calves in either outside hutches or inside unheated barns, about 20% used multiple inside areas/barns/sheds and only 13% used inside heated pens.

After calves were weaned and grouped, 75% in the West used dry-lot/multiple animal outside areas, while in the East, 15% used pasture, 20% used freestalls, 21% used open shed bedded pack, 19% used multiple inside area/barn/shed and about 14% used some other housing.

Private sales not associated with a dairy were the source of 55% of heifers, dairy operations were the source of another 25%, auction/sale barns another 32% and other heifer-raising operations accounted for 43%. Obviously, many heifer operations also received heifers from several sources.

About 31% of heifers traveled 100 miles or more, with that percentage rising as herd size increased.


Feeding practices

NAHMS analyzes data on dairy heifer raisers
All operations reported that the dairy of origin administered colostrum, with about 21% of heifer operations administering additional colostrum at their operation. Most of this (64%) was from the dairy of origin, while 54% of operations also fed a commercial colostrum replacer.

Calf serum protein levels were measured on 40% of operations. Of large operations, 72% monitored these levels, with 79% of western operations (larger operations) monitoring serum levels versus 32% of eastern operations.

Most operations (86%) fed some milk replacer, and more than 60% of operations fed a medicated milk replacer. The latter is somewhat surprising given the more recent restrictions on feeding medicated milk replacers and the 2007 NAMHS report's finding that only 44% of dairies with more than 500 cows fed medicated milk replacer.

There was some evidence of feeding higher-protein milk replacers, with about 14% of operations using greater than 24% protein and 85% using between 20% and 24% protein. However, 83% of milk replacers contained 20-24% fat.

The amount of milk/milk replacer fed daily was four to five quarts for 70% of operations, six to seven quarts for 21% of operations and eight quarts or more for 9% of operations. Larger operations fed more daily than smaller operations. Overall, bucket feeding was most popular at 62%, followed by 27% for bottles and 12% for other. This was skewed by larger operations, 45% of which used bottles and 52% buckets. This was largely due to 93% of operations in the West using bottles.

Only 46% of operations cleaned and disinfected milk feeding equipment between each feeding, while one-third rinsed only with water between feedings. Fifty-five percent of large operations cleaned and disinfected, with all western operations but only 34% of eastern operations doing so.

These heifer operations did a better job of feeding water and starter earlier and forage later than dairy operations in the 2007 NAHMS report (Figure). Large heifer operations fared best in waiting until 70 days to provide forage and commencing water and starter feeding at four days of age. Waiting later to feed forage is better if a well-texturized starter is fed, which I typically have seen in the larger western operations.

I am always amazed that many cannot wait to feed preweaned calves forage but then wait too long to begin feeding them water and starter. On the other hand, western operations did not wean calves until nine weeks, while eastern and smaller operations weaned heifers at around 6.7 weeks of age.

Weaned heifers were fed medicated feed 90% of the time, and 77% of this included ionophores.



From a biosecurity standpoint, commingling heifers from other operations was done on 60% of operations. While 38% of large operations housed heifers separately, these operations still allowed nose-to-nose contact. This was most prevalent (50%) in the West.

On the other hand, 63-83% of all operations had dogs and cats on the premises, 28% had beef cattle, horses/mules/donkeys, followed by pigs, goats, sheep and llamas or alpacas.

On a weekly or monthly basis, 76% used a veterinarian, 64% a nutritionist and 47% an artificial insemination technician. All of these percentages were higher in large operations and in the West. The technician was most frequently allowed in heifer housing areas. Clean coveralls/boots were the most prevalently used biosecurity practice (82-94%), followed by footbaths (27-33%).

Nearly 60% of operations either had no visitors or never allowed visitors in heifer housing areas. On only 26% of operations were vehicles washed or rinsed out after each shipment, and this was greater for large operations.

The most prevalent disease disorder for preweaned heifers was diarrhea/bloat (25%), followed by pneumonia (18%). For weaned heifers, 11% experienced pneumonia/respiratory problems, with no other disorder affecting more than 1%.

The death rate was 4.2% for preweaned heifers, 1.6% for weaned heifers and 0.2% for pregnant heifers. Deaths tended to be greater for small operations -- 6.8% -- versus 4.9% and 6.0% for medium and large operations, respectively. Digestive disorders accounted for 1.4% and pneumonia for 2.3% of preweaned heifer deaths, while pneumonia accounted for nearly all (1.3%) deaths for weaned heifers.


The Bottom Line

The 2011 NAHMS "Dairy Heifer Raiser" report contains a wealth of pertinent data that can be used for an assessment of overall operations in the U.S. and as a reference point for individual operations.

Larger operations typically fare better in how they manage and the results they get, most likely because they have and commit more resources to their operations. Death rates of 4.2% for preweaned calves and 1.6% for weaned heifers compare to 8.7-10.5% and 1.8-2.4% for the NAHMS "Dairy 2007" report.

Clarification: In my Jan. 14 column, I said Suarez-Mena et al. had not provided composition information on dried distillers grains with solubles, but this information was indeed included in that research article.



National Animal Health Monitoring System. 2007. Dairy 2007. Part I: Reference of Dairy Health & Management in the U.S., 2007. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, Veterinary Services, Ft. Collins, Colo.

National Animal Health Monitoring System. 2011. Dairy Heifer Raiser. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, Veterinary Services, Ft. Collins, Colo. Accessed at:

Volume:85 Issue:10

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