May 18, 2010
2-Year-Old Cash Flow at Hilltop Acres
Fort Atkinson, WI

For Brown Swiss breeders Dennis and Barb Mashek of Hilltop Acres in Calmar, Iowa, getting heifers bred earlier and into the milking herd by 24 months has been critical to their success. Dennis and Barb Mashek mark the sixth generation to run Hilltop Acres, and their children Josh, Kylie and Tanner, represent the seventh generation on the farm. Hilltop Acres has a tremendous herd of Brown Swiss and have bred many previous and current outstanding bulls including Dynasty, Jolt, Dalton, and Digger. Over the years, the Masheks have established goals of breeding high quality Brown Swiss – stressing the ability to produce milk at high levels and breed back quickly – which have created opportunities to market their genetics world-wide.

The Masheks now strive to calve their first-lactation animals under 2 years of age and have had great success in meeting this goal. We asked Dennis and Barb to share their experiences in breeding Brown Swiss heifers to calve at 24 months or less:

What is the target age to calve in your 1st lactation animals?
Masheks: We like to see our 1st lactation animals calve between 22 & 24 months of age. Since we have an aggressive ET program and use some of our heifers for recipients, a few animals are older than our target age, but most will calve in within that range. Our current age at first calving on DHI test is 2-01

How do you decide when heifers will be bred for the first time?
Masheks: We look at overall size of our heifers. Our target is to have heifers 12 to 13 months weighing between 850 and 950 pounds. I work very closely with our dairy nutritionist on balancing our rations. We have noticed that the calves out of mature cows tend to be growthier than 1st calf heifers.

What do you feel are the benefits to calving your heifers at under 2-00?
Masheks: Return on our investment!! Our 22 and 23 month old heifers are producing milk and not just eating every day. Calving heifers earlier also allows us to expand our herd more quickly or enable us to have extras to sell.

How have heifers calving at near 2-00 continued to develop during the 1st lactation as compared to heifers calving in at over 2-03?
Masheks: We group our cows in three groups: fresh cows, mature cows and two-year-olds. Without having to compete against the older cows, this enables young cows to spend more time eating, so they can grow and still reach maximum production. If we get a heifer that calves over 2-04, they tend to get overconditioned. They get lazy and are not as aggressive at the feed bunk.

Have you experienced challenges when breeding the younger 2-year-olds back to calve compared to older  2-year-olds?
Masheks: We have found that heifers that calve younger tend to breed back more quickly. Older heifers develop more fatty tissue, which can cause reproductive problems. The main issue with two-year-olds is letting them calve on their own. Too many people injure heifers when calving by trying to assist them. Let them calve on their own, when at all possible.

How have the young heifers performed in their 2nd lactation and what is the target age for the 2nd calving?
Masheks: We see a lot of 2nd lactation cows that peak near 90 to 100 pounds. I feel that calving them young, you will see that they are maturing more closely to the Holstein breed. Our lactation ME average for 2nd lactation is 28,000 pounds of milk. We like to see 2nd lactation cows, calve in between 2-11 and 3-03. We also want to point out that the growth and maturity frame-wise is consistent with older heifers as the cows mature.

What is the financial benefit you’ve seen by calving animals under 2-00? 

Masheks: Take 10 heifers that calve at 1-11 and average 65 lbs. per day for 180 days, that’s 11,700 pounds of milk in 6 months. Then take 10 more heifers that calve at 2-05, it just cost you to feed them for 180 days longer. Believe me, bankers are impressed when a dairy farmer can show numbers that improve cash flow.

Sample records from Hilltop Acres comparing cows calving at under 2-00 vs. cows older than 2-04. 

1-11 232d 18,035m 3.9% 711f 3.3% 577p                2-08 127d 7,446m 3.6% 265f 3.3% 249p

1-10 268d 22,035m 4.4% 961f 3.5% 766p                2-07 182d 12,790m 3.7% 470f 3.2% 404p

1-11 239d 17,815m 3.6% 643f 3.3% 591p                2-04 121d 9,215m 4.0% 371f 3.1% 290p

1-11 216d 19,012m 4.6% 872f 3.5% 655p                2-04 190d 13,704m 4.0% 544f 3.5% 474p

1-11 248d 19,684m 3.8% 752f 3.3% 623p                2-05 196d 11,937m 4.5% 539f 3.4% 407p

1-11 365d 22,607m 5.3% 1,195f 3.7% 835p             2-05 136d 8,479m 4.2% 360f 3.5% 301p

Group Average:                                                        Group Average:

1-11 261d 19,865m 4.3% 856f 3.4% 675p                 2-06 159d 10,595m 4.0% 425f 3.3% 354p

Average per day:                                                       Average per day:

76 lbs. milk                                                                   67 lbs. milk

Here are 3 records for cows that calved at under 2-00 and this is their 2nd lactation record:
2-11 209d 20,413m 4.7% 956f 3.6% 729p
2-11 329d 28,006m 4.5% 1,272f 3.6% 1,012p
3-00 365d 32,469m 4.0% 1,310f 3.5% 1,151p

What advice would you give to breeders that are considering calving their heifers in at under 2-00?
Masheks: Work closely with your veterinarian and nutritionist. They can help you set up a protocol from birth to calving, which can focus on ventilation, vaccinating and proper ration formulation for maximum growth. Use worming and deloucing as needed. These are all key factors to getting heifers to calve young. Above all, do not listen to those who say it cannot be done, or that the breed is not capable. Brown Swiss are equally capable of calving under 24 months, given the opportunity.

What sires are you currently using for breeding your young heifers?
Masheks: Our breeding program calls for heifers to be bred to 99 percent proven sires. This is where the best genetics should be and also the highest conception rate. Bulls currently being used are: Vigor, Wonderment, Joel, Driver, Alloy, Dally, and Agio. Young Sires are used for cleanup in our heifer program.

The Masheks are proving that Brown Swiss 2-year-olds can successfully calve for the first time under 24 months of age while producing milk and developing at the same rate or better than older heifers.  As herd sizes grow and farm numbers decrease, the Brown Swiss cow must become more commercially viable to compete with Holsteins and Jerseys. The Mashek family is bringing this to life through their management every day. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions, call or email questions to other breeders. We learn from each other. There is NOT a dumb question in this business. There is always something that we can learn from each other.”- Dennis Mashek

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