Friday, April 6, 2012

growing a milk cow (Family milk cow project)

To see the previous cow entry, click here.  
To see the next cow entry, click here

When I read things on the internet, I can't help but be a little skeptical about what is written.  Anyone can write anything they want, and there's often no way to tell what is someones opinion and what is fact. 

Who can you trust about animal information? 
When I'm looking at information about animals, I tend to rely heavily on articles or studies that are written by either universities or SARE.  Universities because they are usually the least financially involved in the subject being studied, and SARE because the topics that they study are often closest to the small farm situation that I'm in.    What I'm going to write about here is drawn from a number of sources, but mostly from this study, from the Virginia Cooperative extension, a publication of Virgina State University.    I mean no disrespect to anyone, and in fact, the study confirms a lot of what I've read on blogs about dairy cows. 

First, I need to figure out a way to easily weigh my cow.  Since I don't have a scale, and I don't want to pay $600 to $1000 for a scale, I'm going to use a $5 cow measuring tape, which I think is a good solution.   Since I purchased this cow at auction I know the weight of the cow -- they weighed it prior to sale.  Which is good, because I'd like to verify that the tape really works. 
The dairy cow weigh tape is basically a cloth measuring tape with information printed on it.  In the top picture I'm measuring her heart girth, 2" behind the front legs.  In the bottom picture you can see that the tape is indicating that this cow is between 421 and 444 pounds.  (Click on the picture for a bigger version so you can see the numbers)

Dairy cow math - warning!  cow geek information follows

That compares well with the auction-reported weight of 415 pounds, so as an estimate the tape appears to be pretty good.

The reason that I want to be able to track the weight is so that I can manage her growth rate.  If she grows too fast, or too slow I'm going to want to change her feed situation appropriately.  I'm also going to be breeding her by weight, not by age.

I'm making that decision because I don't know her exact age.  The seller reported that she was born in October, about 6 months ago, and in fact, she's right at the average weight for a 6 month old holstein heifer.  From here on I want her to have steady growth, not too fast, not too slow, until she reaches a good breeding weight.   And during her pregnancy she needs to continue to gain weight at about the same rate while growing the calf. 

I'd also like to breed her so that she calves at at time of year that works for me, and for my farm, and for my grass; so I've got a little bit of a deadline, too.

At a weight of 420 pounds, I have another 310 pounds to put on her before she's bred.  But it's not as simple as that.  From the study:

"There is a critical period when overfeeding can have a detrimental effect on udder development. This begins at about 3 months of age and ends at puberty or approximately 9 to 10 months of age. This is referred to as the allometric period of mammary growth. During this period, udder growth and development is 3.5 times that of other body systems. Studies indicate that when overconditioning during this period occurs, mammary secretory or milk producing tissue in the udder is greatly reduced and replaced with fat. Temporary periods of rapid gain after puberty are acceptable and may allow compensatory adjustments for weight gain to our target at 24 months and weighing 1350 pounds the day of calving. However, ADG's should be limited to not exceed 1.7 lbs. per day during this 3 to 9 months of age period. "

ADG is Average Daily Gain.  I need to manage her so that she doesn't gain more than that per day.  So I need to add 310 pounds to her at a max of 1.7 pounds a day, which gives me a rough goal of 182 days from now, or 6 months.  Which means that the recommended time I can breed her will be in October.

Having learned this, this is a reason that you might consider buying a calf that is 3 months old if you want to control its milk-cow potential during this critical period.  My little heifer looks like she's right on the average growth line for holsteins, so I think I'm good there.  

So if I breed her in October, I'll be calving in  July.

Is that a good time of year to calve?    That's a question for you dairy cow folks.   In a commercial dairy I suspect that they'd just calve as soon as they could given the limitations above.


Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

I'm writing a post about this too. No matter her weight you don't want her calving before she is two if you want her to live a long time. What works best here is late spring calving, or at least a month of good grass through the cow before calving. Grass is the best tonic, and the weather is not too hot, and not too cold for the baby or the humans. I like mine calved before haying since the first week or two is pretty busy when a milk cow calves.

Most of the information written about dairy cows stems from industrial type feeding practices. Meaning a dairy heifer raised conventionally will have been weaned off of milk too early and fed concentrates. It's considered cheaper, and the protein is the same, but the cow's body does not use grain the same as milk, so there is a chance of fat udders. On a calf raised on milk and grass/hay there isn't much chance of fatty udder problems.

Misty Meadows said...

I raise Jerseys for my personal use. I don't have a dairy farm.

I try to strive to calve at two different times of the year. One in the spring, and the other six months later.Why? So when one calve is six months of age, I wean it and have a cow to milk. And if I timed it right, the other cow, has to be quit milking so she has time to dry up before she calves.

Also, this way I always have a cow to milk, but I don't have to worry about bottle feeding a calf.

Clear as mud?! :D


Bruce King said...

Brent can't post because of captcha issues, but asks in email:

"Bruce, why did you pick a holstein instead of say a Jersey?"
In short, opportunity.
This particular heifer was the best looking that I'd run across in a few months of looking. I did bid on a jersey cow/calf pair that was being sold, but I dropped out when the bidding got to $900. I haven't seen any jersey heifers at the auction, but regularly see holsteins.

There are jerseys in the area; you see a lot of jersey-cross bull calves, just almost never see a heifer, and this cow-calf pair was the first that I'd seen, too.

I use the holstein for meat production because of resale issues. The jersey fat on the meat is yellow, and the average consumer expects beef fat to be white, and it's easier to have a product that you don't have to explain. Holstein fat is white; the steaks look like they do in he market. Grass fed will give a yellowish tinge to the fat of any cow, but the jersey fat is deep yellow in my experience. Butter yellow.

So if the calf that is produced is male, I think I'll have an easier time selling the beef from a holstein.

Guernsey, Jersey, Holstein -- all of them will produce much more milk than a family will need per day 3 to 6 gallons per day. I'm ok with that because I've got other animals that will benefit from it, and I'd like to make some cheese. I can also use it to feed calves if I want to up my dairy steer production.

sheila said...

October is too young to breed her. I agree with Throwback at Trapper Creek you want to have your heifer be 2 before she has her 1st calf. Breeding at just barely one year old is way too young and likely to lead to calving problems in a Holstein. The herd I had were all Holsteins and they tend to throw big calves. Ours usually weighed somewhere between 80 and 120 lbs and that is way to big for a yearling to birth without complications. A mostly grassfed animal that wasn't pushed with a lot of grain while growing up will give you the soundest animal. Feeding too much grain at a young age can lead to laminitis and lifelong stomach issues. Been there done that. All you have then is beef because she won't live long enough to be a dairy cow. Grass, lots of grass and hay during the winter is best for a growing heifer. Spring births are the easiest and healthist for both the cow and calf. I'd just give your heifer an extra year to grow up slowly.

Bruce King said...

Throwback and Sheila: I hear what you're saying. The study that I'm looking at (link in the post) is proposing to breed her at 60% of adult weight and have her hit adult weight when she calves, which works out to be impregnated at 14-16 months, and then calving at 23-25 months; the goal being around 1350lbs after calving.

You're both saying impregnate at 24 months and calve at 33 months?

I don't recall the timeline for your current milk cow, Matron. Is that the timeframe you used for her?

My grass doesn't start growing in earnest until May on a regular year. This last 2 years have been exceptionally cold and wet; this year is supposed to be a little more neutral. A June or July calving would give me at least 30 days on good grass even on a cold year.

sheila said...

Bruce, your source is correct. Calving anytime after 24 months is fine as long as the heifer has reached the target weight at breeding time. You had mentioned you thought she was born in Oct of 2011 and you planned on breeding her this coming fall. I was just trying to point out that breeding at 12 months is too young, especially for a Holstein.

I look forward to following the blog adventures with your future cow. I really miss the farm and live vicariously through yours and a few other blogs.

Bruce King said...

Sheila, I mis-spoke and you caught my error; thanks for that.

I don't know when she'll reach the right weight for breeding, but I'll do my best to follow the guidelines in that paper; 1.7lbs a day average. Figure I'll tape her weekly and keep records so that I can track progress towards the goal.

So if I do things as planned, she will not calve sooner than 24 months unless I choose to delay that to time her calving to the grass or other farming considerations.

It's been interesting to learn that there's this much detailed knowledge in something that I had never really thought about.

I'm glad that you enjoy the blog; it's nice to hear.

I'm happy to be your fractional virtual farmer.

Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

Bruce, I too thought you meant that you would possibly breed her at one year of age. I bred my heifer to calve at just over two. I think she'll do OK, although depending on the heifers sometimes I wait until they are two and sometimes I don't, it depends on the heifer. The hardest thing for them is that they are still losing baby teeth and it's harder for them to get complete nutrition while that is happening. Calving in late spring (like you're planning) really helps because grass is much easier for them to eat than hay when they have teeth coming in, therefore they gain more nutrition at that time compared to a diet of all hay. Lactation is a real stressor on a dairy cow.