A few weeks ago I got an encouraging email from a dear reader. Grace says Smart Harvest is her teacher on matters dairy. Grace says thanks to educative articles on Smart Harvest she bought an in-calf heifer and now she needs more information on how to take care of her new catch. Like Grace, most farmers start-off with an in-calf heifer.
It is a good start but one that must be guided by an animal production or health expert. If you are choosing from a herd choose the largest as it is likely to be good in many other traits.
The fatter the better?
But don’t pick one that is fat – they are likely to produce less milk. Pick from a heavier milking mother – she is likely to be as good as the mother. Records are good at refining your selection criteria. I assume Grace did all this and her heifer meets all these selection requirements.
Grace’s question is apt; the foetal growth and milk productivity thereafter are pegged on how well the heifer was fed while pregnant. Underfeeding or feeding an in-calf heifer on poor quality feeds will result in low birth weight for the little one, low colostrum production which will expose the fragile calf to diseases.
Poor feeding at pregnancy lengthens the time taken before the animal can conceive again reducing the number of calves you will get from the animal. Nutrition should therefore start before the animal conceives. The heifer needs a good body condition before breeding- not too fat or too thin.
You can deworm
Farmers are advised to flush their animals before breeding by putting them on a high nutrition plane to increase chances of conception and have a good foetus development. In small ruminants this is done to increase the twining incidence. In heifers, you can deworm at this still stage. If you are keeping heifers in a herd with other cows and you are doing synchronisation – (treating them with hormones so that they come on heat once and are served together), breed the heifers three weeks ahead of the cows as this will enable you concentrate on them as most are likely to have difficult births and will need veterinary assistance. When breeding, the rule of the thumb is that size (body frame) and not age should be considered. Heifers with small body frames are likely to give you a difficult birth.
Third semester is critical
At this stage the fetus has grown in size and its nutritional requirements are high. About 75 per cent of foetal growth happens at this time with the foetus reducing the size of the rumen hence the need to have quality feeds.
Energy and protein are needed. However, care should be taken to avoid over feeding as that may result in a large foetus that results in difficult birth. Nutritional diseases like ketosis and milk fever have their origins at this stage.
Homegrown feeds (hay, silage, and grains) plus additional supplements (protein, mineral, and vitamins) – 2-3 kgs of concentrates can be used successfully and economically. Unlike cows that will be lactating while at the same time pregnant heifers have the advantage of not being milked hence lower nutritional requirement.
[The writer was the Vet of the Year 2016 and works with the Kenya Tsetse and Trypanosomiasis Eradication Council – KENTTEC, [email protected]]