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Show Heifer Ages – About as accurate as my horoscope

It seems like a question that comes up every February 28th, May 31st, August 31st, and November 30th among dairy breeders around the world. Since we launched The Milk House, it certainly seems to be a question of great debate. The problem is …. Is the question, in fact, irrelevant?

How big an issue is it?

The fact of the matter is that, no matter what date you choose, there will always be those who choose to “test” the system. There will be those who think they need to get the edge and register that February 28th heifer as a March 1st calf. The problem is those that really want to test the system are pushing even further and further. Now anyone who has worked with dairy calves knows that 1 or 2 days is not going to make a significant difference in the size of an animal. In order to actually see a noticeable difference, you would need to push the limits by at least 2-3 weeks. So when you talk about how much this has to be done, in order to get a true advantage, we are talking about a significant amount of time. Otherwise, you are just looking for a heifer being in the start of another class instead of at the end of the class before. While not nothing, it is certainly not that big deal that some make it out to be. The much bigger issue is those heifers that seem to get lost for weeks and weeks on end.

Any time you see a heifer with a March 1st, June 1st, September 1st, or December 1st birthday, there will always be those that suspect that the heifer is actually much older than that. Especially if she is well grown for her age. The thing that I caution is that with so much embryo transfer work and breeders using timed A.I. they are setting up their programs for calves to be born at the first of these months. Sure there will be those that come a little early, but given that the program is set up for these calving dates, the calves that come “naturally” early will usually be a little smaller because they did not have as long a gestation in their mother/recipient. And for the ones that got lost for a few days, well the relative advantage is not as big as you think, as we described earlier. In looking at the show results from last year’s World Dairy Expo and Royal Winter Fair, only a small percent were born on the 1st of the month.

Sure there will be heifers that look a little bigger for their age or squeak into a younger class. But the financial benefits are nominal. For if you are selling the heifer as a show heifer, sure size is a part of it. But if you again look at last year’s Expo and Royal results, in pretty much every class it was not the largest animal that won the class, but rather the most correct. And I advise those looking to purchase a calf for a 4-H member that you are always best to go with the most correct heifer versus the largest heifer. Not only will they be a much easier heifer to show for the 4-Her but they will also have the greatest chance of making the best cow.

How Do You Catch?

Over the years, there has been great discussion on how to catch these date of birth cheaters. There have been record audits by breed associations. Talk of judging age by teeth analysis. There have even been those that claim that they can tell the age of a heifer by looking at her tail. While all of those ways have their merits, well maybe not the tail analysis, ultimately they have not been successful. The big reason for this is that, unless you are on each farm each day, there is no actual way to judge. And all other measures are cost prohibitive. More recently there has been talk about using a lottery system. Two weeks before the nation’s first spring show, the dates for calf and heifer calves could be established using two bowls filled with numbered ping pong balls. The first bowl will have 12 balls (1 to 12) and the second bowl 31 balls (1 to 31). The ball drawn from the first bowl would represent the month, the second bowl would indicate the day. If 2 and 14 were drawn, classes could begin on February 14 and every three months thereafter . . . May 14, August 14 and November 14 . . . for both calves and heifers. If 29, 30 or 31 are drawn for months without those dates, simply draw again. Though that is counter productive as how would you compare one class from one year to the next.  In order to get an age range large enough to actually mean something the variance from one year to the next in actual age for each class would have to be too large, also, in theory, you could end up with classes that have calves being born in a 2-3 day time frame. Note: For those that think the robotic milking systems and new on-farm herd management programs will make it harder to cheat, there is still the simple switch to full sisters born from different recipients, one that came a little earlier for one from a later date. There will always be a way.

The Great Equalizer

In looking at the winners of the cow classes from this past year’s Expo and Royal you will find that none were born on the 1st of the month. That is because by the time these animals reach the age of maturity any advantage they have had from being born earlier it long since gone.

A bigger reason why you see certain herds always having heifers at the top of the classes at the big shows is the management they provide their heifers. If you talk to and watch any of the herds that consistently have the winning cows, as well as heifers, they will tell you it’s a 365 day a year job that starts the day the heifer is born. These herds are treating their heifers the same as a well-tuned athlete is treated. They are getting the ultimate nutrition and management. They are getting lots of exercise and worked with on a daily basis. Not expecting significant results by just pulling the animals off the rough pasture or a TMR ration just before the show.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

While there will always be those who cheat the system, trying to find that “edge” that they think will bring them fame and fortune in the show ring. History has shown that just does not happen. While there are certainly a few dollars here and there, but at what expense? There will always be those that doubt the age of a heifer, but how relevant an issue is it? It’s not like these animals are going to be used as bull mothers at A.I. centers. The big thing to remember is when buying a heifer, always go for the most correct heifer you can find. Conformation correctness will most certainly offer the greatest long-term return on your investment, and don’t waste your money, or lower your ethics for something that will not even make a difference.


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