Factors influencing heifer survival and fertility on commercial dairy farms

Wathes, D C and Brickell, J S and Bourne, N E and Swali, A and Cheng, Z R (2008) Factors influencing heifer survival and fertility on commercial dairy farms. Animal, 2 (8). pp. 1135-1143.

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Abstract

The average dairy cow survives only three lactations, reducing the availability of replacement heifers. Prenatal losses occur due to early embryonic mortality (about 40%), later embryo loss (up to 20% in high-yielding herds) or abortion (about 5%). A recent survey of 19 UK herds showed that 7.9% of calves were born dead and 3.4% died within 1 month. During the rearing phase, 6.7% of animals were lost before reaching first service at 15 months due to disease or accident and another 2.3% failed to conceive. Many potential replacements therefore never enter the milking herd. This severely limits opportunities for on-farm selection of breeding cows in addition to presenting a welfare issue and causing economic loss. The most profitable animals once lactation is reached combine good milk production with a regular calving pattern. Some aspects of performance are related to age at first calving (AFC), which in turn is influenced by heifer growth rates. Poorly growing animals required more services to conceive, calved later and subsequently performed badly. Optimum fertility and maximum yield in the first lactation were associated with an AFC of 24 to 25 months. However heifers calving at 22 to 23 months performed best in terms of total milk yield and survival over the first 5 years, partly because good heifer fertility was associated with better fertility later We have investigated some possible juvenile predictors of future performance. Low-birth-weight calves were more likely to come from either primiparous mothers or older dams (3+ lactations) with higher peak milk yields, suggesting that the uterine environment may limit prenatal calf growth due to competition for nutrients with maternal growth or milk production. Linear trait classification scores for frame size show genetic correlations with longevity. The skeletal measures of height and crown rump length in 1-month-old calves was correlated to subsequent stature, and frame size was correlated to weight at 15 months. It may thus be possible to predict performance from simple size measurements as juveniles. Neither endogenous nor stimulated growth hormone (GH) release in 6-month-old calves were related to milk yield in the first three lactations, but size of a stimulated GH peak was positively related to milk energy values in the first lactation. Cows with delayed ovulation (>45 days) in the first lactation had a higher GH pulse amplitude and lower IGF-I as a juvenile. Cows that partition excess energy into milk in their first lactation may suffer reduced longevity.