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Practice Makes Perfect for First-Calf Heifers

Maureen Hanson


March 10 , 2021



Newly fresh heifers have to process a lot of changes on the day they give birth. Making their initial milking a pleasant experience can be aided with some advance training, according to a recent discussion on the Dairy Cattle Welfare Council’s discussion board.

Commenters in a conversation on parlor-training for first-calf noted these helpful measures:


1. Do some trial runs. Sending heifers through the holding area and parlor in advance of calving will help familiarize them with the process, even if it’s just a few times. Some dairies do this incrementally, starting with just a walk through; then a walk through and stopping; then stopping and touching the heifers. Further measures like applying post-dip may be added.


2. Use older cows as guides. Experienced animals can provide leadership to novice heifers. For example, heifers can be walked through the parlor with dry cows who are scheduled once a week to use the foot bath. Or one older, “pilot” cow can be added to a heifer group to lead them. If advance parlor training is not possible, mix fresh heifers in small groups with mature cows for their first few milkings. This is preferrable to leaving them in the back of a large group in the holding pen, where they will be more timid and slower to adjust.


3. Don’t forget the noise factor. The unfamiliar sounds of the parlor can be just as intimidating as the physical facilities. When doing practice runs, turn on the milking equipment, radio, etc., to simulate the real milking experience heifers will have later.

4. Staff up for heifers. If possible, bring an extra person into the parlor when it’s time to milk fresh heifers. Also, strategically choose employees to work with them – some people just have a better “touch” with heifers.


5. Milk heifers first. Some dairies find it works best to always make heifers their first milking group. At that point, the team is fresher and has more patience for the extra attention heifers need.

Wisconsin dairy consultant Karl Burgi said the advance training piece is especially valuable in helping heifers acclimate to parlor life, whether it’s a parallel or rotary style. In rotary parlors, it may not be possible to actually put them on the carousel until they freshen, but there still is value in preparation by bringing them into the entrance and walking them out through the exit lane.


“The farms that do any type of training or adjustment have calmer heifers milking them the first few times,” he said. “This training is especially effective on grazing or dry-lot dairies where otherwise heifers never would see concrete until the day they calve.”


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