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Reaching Genetic Potential Needs Quality Management Brent Fawcett DVM, Agwest Veterinary Group
Maximizing cow potential is really at the heart of what today’s progressive dairy farmers are working towards – making sure that every cow in the herd is the best that she can be. There are two key focus areas necessary for this to happen: 1. Breeding for the best possible replacement calf, and 2. Ensuring that the replacement maintains optimal health throughout its life.
Today’s dairy farmer spends great effort on maximizing the genetic potential of the herd. Most farms have spent generations improving the genetics of the herd. Genetic advisors are highly skilled and have new technologies available to identify the best cows in the barn and to produce more daughters from them. It is now common for farms to routinely use a combination of purebred sexed and beef AI, Embryo Transfer, and In Vitro Fertilization to help them achieve their genetic plan.
The time, energy, and money spent making great calves is an investment in the farm’s future. Of course, to realize a return on your investment, those calves must be nurtured to grow into healthy, productive cows that are capable of working to their full potential. This effort begins before birth and continues throughout that animal’s life. There are many critical control points that should be carefully monitored. Most veterinary health programs will incorporate the same key elements.
Planning for optimal health begins long before the calf is born. One of the major bottlenecks in maintaining livestock health is overcrowding; having too many animals on the farm. As farm quota production requirements increase, there can be a
tendency to simply keep more animals than current farm resources can support. A good veterinary reproductive program will assess future replacement needs and ensure that the right number of replacements are born to fill future requirements. To plan wisely, the following questions need to be answered: What are your current production requirements? How many cows are filling your current quota? How productive are your cows? (can you fill quota with fewer cows?) Can you keep cows in the herd for more lactations? Why do cows leave the herd? (what is your cull rate and reasons for culling?) Is there farm expansion or downsizing plans in the future? Once these questions are answered, you will have a clear idea of your replacement requirements. The next important consideration should be: are the farm resources enough to support the herd size? Key focus areas include facility (calf, heifer, lactating and dry cow barns), labour, feed inventory, and manure management.
During the first few hours of a calf’s life, we have the opportunity to influence her long-term health in two ways – maximizing her immune system and minimizing her exposure to disease-causing pathogens.
Most veterinarians now recommend that calves be fed 4L of quality colostrum within four hours of birth and advise that calving areas are clean enough that calves are not exposed to manure. Also important are specific vaccination protocols for herds to protect against farm specific pathogens. Many of these protocols start with the dry cows and/or calves to ensure that the calves get off to a healthy start. Following colostrum management, there are three important areas to focus on through to weaning: proper nutrition, air quality, and bedding. There are many ways to raise a calf, but successful strategies will have average daily weight gains approaching 2lb per day with a doubling of birth weight by weaning. Veterinary calf health programs will measure and monitor calf progress. The goals are two-fold: maximize early growth to the calf’s full genetic potential and to minimize any disease that will limit that potential. We know that how well a calf does in her first two months of life impacts her milking potential as an adult.
Heifers are sometimes the ‘forgotten group’ on the farm, as they generally need less input and care than calves and cows. The best way to ensure that heifers do well is
to ensure that the weaning transition goes well. Veterinary heifer health programs start by monitoring and assessing the transition from milk to solid feeds. Good programs will see that heifers continue to grow on the same trajectory as the calves had been, without a ‘slump’ in growth rate. Once heifers are off to a good start, a nutrition program should ensure their body frame, mammary, reproductive, and immune systems develop optimally. Targeted vaccination and biosecurity programs should continue through the heifer groups to limit diseases that will limit future potential.
Once cows reach the milking herd, it is time to review the entire program. How are the cows performing? Is every cow in the barn truly the best that she can be? Is she realizing her genetic potential? If the answer is no, future success will depend upon finding the bottlenecks and making changes to see that the same mistakes are not repeated. If the answer is yes, your farm has the opportunity to fine-tune the program; perhaps to set higher goals so that the next cycle of cows has even higher potential. The success of good programs relies on monitoring, analyzing, and reviewing the plan.
We are Proudly BC Owned and Operated
Dr. Brent Fawcett BSc, DVM
Dr. Brent Fawcett BSc, DVM
Dr. Lisa McCrea Hemphill BSc, DVM Dr. Steve Chiasson DVM, cVMA
Dr. Ben Potvin BSc, DVM
Dr. Lauren MacLeod BSc, DVM
Dr. Jackie Wrigglesworth DVM
Dr. Peter Watson DVM
Agwest Fraser Valley
Agwest Vancouver Island
Agwest Veterinary Group offers
24/7/365 Emergency Service
We wish you a happy and healthy holiday season from our family to yours!
| Abbotsford, 1160 Riverside Rd., 604-853-2372 | Enderby, 704 Old Vernon Rd., 250-838-0745 | |

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