AgriSearch in partnership with DARD, is co-funding a new research project to improve the efficiency of heifer rearing systems through the utilisation of precision technologies and an enhanced understanding of the nutrient requirements of dairy young stock.


Recent CAFRE analysis has estimated that it costs around £1,800 to rear one dairy heifer.  This equates to a cost of 6 pence per litre of milk produced.  Whilst previous research has clearly indicated the benefits of calving down at 24 months the average, age at first calving in Northern Ireland is still estimated to be over 30 months, therefore, costing the industry a considerable amount of money.  Possible reasons for producers failing to calve heifers at 24 months of age are:


                     Lack of monitoring equipment on farms


                     Producer uncertainty over the longevity of heifers that first calve at 24 months of age


                     Lack of precise information/nutritional guidance to assist producers/advisers to correct under or over performing animals when offered varied diet types


                     Inability to deliver nutritional programs individually to heifers depending on performance


                     No real time delivery of performance and guidance data




There are three elements to this project:


1.       Nutritional studies will be conducted at AFBI Hillsborough to address knowledge gaps relating to energy and protein requirements for the period between weaning and calving.  These studies will include indoor and outdoor studies using cutting edge individual behaviour monitoring systems.  This will lead to the development of blueprints for grazing and housed dairy heifer replacements.


2.       Precision systems that enable remote assessment of dairy heifer development both during the indoor and outdoor periods will be identified, developed and tested.  This could include instruments such as weigh scales with electronic identification placed in front of water troughs.  The use of these technologies for other reasons such as oestrus detection and ill health will also be explored.


3.       Using local industry level data involving 10s of thousands of lactation records will enable the researchers to determine the impact of age at first calving on life time performance.


Based on the information produced in the project “How to Guides” will be developed and an update to the current BovIS online heifer growth programme completed to give basic nutritional advice on how best to achieve individual and group performance targets. 




Rearing replacement heifers is an important part of the dairy industry.  This project will help address the industry and farmer concerns by enhancing knowledge on heifer rearing systems and developing monitoring and decision support systems which will lead to better nutrient utilisation, reduced Greenhouse Gas emissions, increased financial performance allowing livestock to fulfil their genetic potential.