Routine weighing essential to lifespan of calves

Published 25 May 17

More UK dairy farms need to regularly weigh their growing calves to improve their life chances according to AHDB Dairy Technical Manager Andy Dodd.

That was the message at a recent Calf to Calving event held at Glasgoforest Farm in Aberdeen.“Calf survival is still a big challenge; 14% of tagged heifers fail to reach their first calving.” Andy says. “That’s something we need to change. We know that good regular weight gain should ensure heifers reach their calving weight by 24 months which in turn is incredibly good for their health, as well as the farm’s bottom line.

“However, the average calving age is closer to 28 months and we still see many heifers not calving until they are far older which decreases milk yield and lifespan, and increases the likelihood of calving assistance.

“Things are getting better, but slowly; we need to speed things up.”

Royal Veterinary College research funded in conjunction with AHDB Dairy shows that reducing calving age from 26 to 24 months saves 16% in rearing costs, while heifers which don’t calf until 32 months cost an extra 41%.

For Andy the answer is clear; regular weighing to ensure young stock are gaining at the right rate for their farm and breed.

“Different farms and breeds will grow at different rates, the key is to weigh calves at birth, and then establish what their growth rate needs to be to achieve a 90% mature weight at 24 months. The main thing with weighing is that it is regular, and that electronic scales are used. It is really hard to judge an animal’s weight simply by looking, we often ask farmers to do this at our meetings and seven different farmers will give seven different answers.”

AHDB Dairy advises that calves should be weighed as often as possible, but usually when they are being handled for another purpose to minimise stress. As well as at birth, calves should be weighed at three weeks old (gaining 0.5 kg a day), when they are weaned (with birth weight doubled by 56 days), one week post weaning (to check growth is being maintained), six months (27% mature weight), 12 months (50% mature weight), 14-15 months (breeding – 60% mature weight), 18 months, and of course at calving (90% mature weight).

The ideal kit for weighing is an electric weigh crush or bars, but a weigh band can be used if they are not available.

Andy says:“Weighing is the best way to diagnose a problem in a rearing system. If heifers are struggling and not calving at 24 months, weighing can be used to locate the issue. A group can be weighed when something changes in the system (e.g. diet/going out to grass) and then weighed again 7-10 days later which allows farmers to adapt and reduce the effect of weight gain stalling or even weight loss. Weighing 10% of animals will give a good indication if whole group weighing is not an option, although ideally all animals should be weighed.”

The event host farm, Glasgoforest, is one of a group of twelve farms across the UK which are taking part in the Calf to Calving initiative, which follows groups of ten calves from birth to first calving, with the aim of getting them to calve at 24 months. Glasgoforest runs a 140 strong herd of mainly Holstein Friesians on a late spring block calving system.

Farmer William Willis has worked hard to ensure his group have remained on target throughout the process and his heifers are now 12 months old, and will calve in April 2018 at the optimum age of 24 months.

He says: “We were actually a little ahead of target in the first year of the programme with most of our ten about 10-15% above the target weight. However, coming into the second year the weight gain has slowed since the heifers were turned out on the 10th April but we are confident we will be calving at 24 months come April next year.

“The regular weighing is now an important part of the programme, it allows us to identify problems quickly so changes can be made if necessary to ensure heifers stay on target. 

Farmers can find out more about costs of raising heifers on their own farms by using AHDB Dairy’s Heifer Rearing Cost Calculator. This free online tool allows farmers to input their own costings under three distinct rearing periods; birth to weaning, weaning to conception and conception to calving. Farmers can then explore how changes in their rearing regime might affect these costs, for example, reducing the age at first calving from 26 to 24 months.

Calf to Calving Farms are part of AHDB’s wider Farm Excellence Platform, which inspires industry to improve performance and succeed through farmer-to-farmer knowledge exchange. The programme includes the development of Strategic Farms and Monitor Farms across six agricultural sectors.

More information can be found at