Archive for Heifer Raising

“LESS IS BEST” For “MORE” Heifer Replacement PROFIT

Costs for raising replacement heifers, like other inputs on dairy operations, have been rising continuously for more than 15 years.  Unfortunately market prices received for heifers are landing in the exact opposite direction.  Today the market value is below the rearing costs which place dairy managers between a rock and a hard place.  You can`t do without replacements but it`s costing too much to raise them. It`s all about being more economical.  Ironically the way to get more is achieved by focusing on less.

What it cost to raise a heifer from birth to fresheing

You Need Advisors Who Know “LESS”

It seems almost counter-productive to expect less from those who are experts in their field, but with the state of the market and the obligation to be profitable, everyone needs to be a specialist in the less proposition:  less feed costs, less raising time, less time to weaning, less time to breeding. Each person that you consult with or work beside on your dairy needs to have this appreciation for less: Extension Dairy specialists, nutritionists, veterinarians, geneticists and financial advisors can apply their resources to your specific situation and help you find how to make “less” your value proposition.

SIX ways to MAKE MORE with “LESS”

There are many ways to improve your heifer replacement program.  It is no surprise that prolonged challenges in this area is having the positive effect of producing specialists who have focused on solving the numerous issues that are involved. Of course, the Internet is a gold mine of ideas, examples, charts and field trials that can make your decision making more focused.  Dr. Larry Tranel and Dr. Lee Kilmer, both of Iowa State University, have provided a compendium of materials to polish up your understanding of this area (Click here). You can start by reviewing published materials or seek out on line or live seminars.

1. Don’t Raise Anything “Less” than the Best

This first step is probably the most important for long term heifer replacement success. We absolutely must get past the unwritten rule that you raise every calf that is born alive. Modern genetic tools such as sexed semen (Read more: Sexed Semen from Cool Technology to Smart Business Decision and SEXED SEMEN – At Your Service!) and genomics  (Read more: The Genomic Bubble Has Burst?, How Genomics is Killing the Dairy Cattle Breeding Industry and Genomics – Lies, Miss-Truths and False Publications!) are combining with improved management to make a positive impact on heifer raising.  Using one or all of these can mean that there are lot more heifers on the ground than are needed to replace culled cows.  There are formulae available that can determine the number of replacement heifers to expect on your operation.  They factor in variables such as herd size, calving interval, sex ratio of calves born alive, calf mortality rate and age at first calving.  Actual examples are available online. You can use the Kilmer/Tranel site previously noted or seek out one that may be more accessible to your dairy location or go to Penn State Extension. Raising extra heifers represents extra expenses for feed, labour, facilities.  This needs to be pencilled out against potential income the heifer sales might generate. (Read more:  Should you be raising your own heifers? and Herd Health, Management, Genetics and Pilot Projects: A Closer Look at ZOETIS, 8 Ways DNA PROFILING Your Whole Herd Will Improve Your Breeding Program and Genomic testing: Feeding the world with profitable cows)

Of course, once you know the exact number you are targeting it is equally important to determine which heifers are actually the best. One option is to identify the lower genetic potential calves by genomic testing and then cull the bottom 10-25% before investing dollars in raising them.  Making an informed decision can result in very significant improvements in milk and fat yield.

2. Less Feed Cost

Feed literally eats up a large portion of your dairy expense budget. It therefore is a prime target for management efficiency.  Meticulous record keeping is needed to make sure that you have good data for decision making.  This is an area which can have wide variation on inputs – due to geography, logistics or specific farm variables such as soil fertility and availability. More than in the past, managers are considering rotational grazing.  Motivated by using what is already available, reducing labor and machinery costs or some seek the better profit margins on organic milk which requires pasture-fed management of the milking herd. Other location dependent options could include using various by-product feedstuffs to reduce feeding costs.  I recall my first surprise when I learned that cookies and donuts from local factories and fast-food operations were becoming part of dairy herd rations.  It gives a whole new meaning to “milk-and-cookies”.

3. Less Confinement Feeding Could Net Profits

Intensive grazing of dairy heifers can reduce cost of labor and feed by reducing manure management and the feeding of harvested forages.  Reducing costs by grazing heifers on productive crop ground depends on management skills, yield and assumptions used. Reports of field trials are available on line.  Also reported are significant health benefits (ultimately less illness, less cost, less staff time) from rotational grazing for dairy heifers (Click here).

Weight and milk production gains with heifers raised on pasture compared to confinement have also been realized. In a study by Posner and Hedtke, 2012, (CIAS Research Brief #89), yearling heifers gained 1.97 and 1.86 pounds per day on pasture and in confinement, respectively. For ME Milk production, the first lactation heifers produced 25,328 and 23,415, pounds of milk respectively for those raised on pasture versus those raised in confinement. Thus, from reducing costs, increasing health and milk production, raising heifers on pasture makes sense.

Reducing Costs of Raising Heifers by Grazing

A significant conclusion is summed up by Dr. Tranel in “Optimizing Your Heifer Enterprise” where he points out:  “Feed costs make up the largest share of the costs to raise a calf to freshening. One method to reduce feed costs is to combine corn co-products with low quality forages. A difference of $0.23 per head per day doesn’t sound like a lot until you consider the 800 pound heifer to be the “average” size heifer in a dairy herd. Therefore, a herd of 100 cows would have about 75 heifers that could be fed this lower cost ration. In one year that is a saving of over $6,000.”

4. Less time to Weaning

Tranel and Kilmer point out the benefits of taking less time in getting replacement heifers to the weaning stage. “It typically costs $5-$6 per calf per day to raise a calf from birth to weaning. A 56 day birth-weaning period typically has an estimated $336 of expenses. If this birth-to-weaning cost is subtracted, along with the ownership cost and initial value of the heifer, the cost to raise from weaning-to-calving is $1,661.50 over 674 days or $2.47 per day for the average weight heifer.”

5. Less Time to Breeding

It isn’t unexpected that heifer replacement specialists target less time taken in getting heifers to breeding stage. “Producers should make every effort to grow heifers faster so that they reach the target weights by 13 months of age so that they can be bred.”  Getting heifers bred and calving sooner, means they will join the milk string sooner and start generating income.

6. Less Time to Calving

Management strategies targeting less time to calving are positive to many aspects of your heifer replacement program as outlined by the Iowa State Extension Specialists. “Reducing the age at first calving will have one of the greatest impacts on reducing the total costs of raising replacement dairy heifers from birth to calving. Another great impact would be that the doubling of the birthrate from birth to weaning may actually increase costs during that time frame but the milk production benefits later on far outweigh the added costs. More Holsteins calved at 23 or 24 months of age than any other age and these heifers produced more milk in their first lactation than heifers that calved at an older age. Thus there is no economic advantage to calving heifers at 26 months or older.”  The article also contained this nugget from Kilmer and Tranel: “It is important to realize that reducing the heifer raising period from 24 months to 23 months saves approximately $94 per heifer for a total cost of $2,166 per heifer raised. For a 100- cow herd raising 40 replacements each year, this savings would equal $3,760 per year.”

dairy heifer growth guidelines

Source: Optimizing Your Heifer Enterprise

The Bullvine Bottom Line

The cost of raising heifers is well above the market value they bring on today’s market. Management practices that focus wherever possible on getting MORE from LESS heifers, in LESS time and with LESS feed costs is the best way to get more out of your replacement heifer program. That also means MORE profitability for your bottom line.



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Should you be raising your own heifers?

Every week dairy breeders read about better ways to raise their heifers. Take care and precaution at birth, follow health protocols, feed them properly and calve them at 24 months. These are all topics contained in the dairy farm press or on the Internet. However for most breeders there are four significant things that stand out as being topics that still need breeder attention. In Bullvine fashion we decided to weigh in on them with renewed vigour. We want every breeder to take the opportunity to be more successful.

Raising Too Many

Can you believe it – the vast majority of breeders just cannot get past raising every heifer calf that is born alive?

Their long established practice has been that we raise every heifer and sell, at a profit, the ones we do not need for herd replacements. Well sadly but truthfully today that profit has disappeared. An Internet search shows that dairy extension specialists are saying that it costs $2,000 to $2,500 in North America and 1,500 to 1,800 Euros in the EU to raise a heifer to calve at 25-26 months of age. And that does not put an initial value at birth for the heifer which can be from $300 to 500 Euros depending on genetic merit. Yes, in total, it is costly. And we have all heard the justification that labor should not be included in the total. That thinking is totally old fashioned. Especially given, that at the present time, average quality fresh first calvers are selling for $1,600 to $2,100. It just does not make economic sense that the sellers should be subsidizing the buyers to the tune of 500 to 800 dollars.

Yes, I know breeders say, “But it is different for me”. Oh really? How does that work for breeders focusing on using their forages, labor and facilities to produce milk efficiently? It is better to use the homegrown forage to feed heifers, to keep workers busy and heifer barns full rather than producing extra milk, using fewer staff and finding an alternate revenue generating use for the extra space? I think not!

On a breeding stock basis in the later part of 2013 many 2000 GPA TPI or 2500 GPA LPI bred heifers sold in North America for less than $2000. (Read more: An Insider’s Guide to What Sells at the Big Dairy Cattle Auctions 2013) I heard breeders sharing with other breeders that that price was okay. But was it profitable? No! And if you had added expenses to get the calf, like ET or IVF, then definitely not! Sometimes there is the opportunity to sell a heifer here or there that might do some show winning.  But those are few and far between and then their maximum value is likely before the show season starts not afterwards. I know of parents of 4Hers or Junior breed members who want a show calf for their child. That is all well and good but it seems to me that it is much easier to buy a high quality calf rather than try to breed it. Besides including the young person in the buying experience may be quite beneficial for their learning experience.

Current prices on fresh first calvers all boils down these things. A current limited demand, an over supply of heifers and milk prices or quota limitation holding back major industry expansion. The use of sexed semen and producers getting their involuntary culls under control are also significant factors. Heifer rearing costs doubled from 1997 to 2007 and are likely to double again by 2015. No matter how you look at it raising more heifers than you need at this time is a waste of your time, resources and assets.

No Records – Can’t Manage

Traditionally dairymen have recorded the inputs and performance of their cows but not their heifers. Well that practice is no longer enough as on-farm margins tighten. Inputs to the heifer herd and heifer performance need to be monitored using herd management software. Many such types of software exist. Usually it is easiest if the heifer programs from the milking herd software is used for the heifers and dry cows as it makes the transition from non-milking to milking automatic.  It is highly recommended that the information inputted also include financials in addition to growth, health, reproduction and nutrition.

To benchmark your heifer herd here are some Central North America numbers to use to compare to your herd:

Per Heifer per Day

*          Total Cost                                                  $2.90 (Birth to 26 months)

*          Average Feed Cost                                   $1.30 (45%)

*          Avg Labour & Management Cost      $0.69 (23%)

*          Avg Variable Cost                                   $0.29 (10%)

*          Avg Fixed Cost                                         $0.12  (04%)

*          Initial Value at Birth                           $0.50 (18%)

Of course these costs will differ based on a number of factors including degree of automation, facilities, feeds fed and size of operation. The average daily cost will be highest for the babies (perhaps $3.25+) and lowest for second and third trimester pregnant heifers (if on pasture it could be as low as $2.00).

Definitely, if you don’t have the facts, you cannot manage and improve your heifer operation.

Breed Them Younger

Dairymen following an aggressive growing program now have their heifers at breeding weight (700 lbs / 320 kgs) by 11 months of age. Some dairymen report breeding at the first heat after this weight is reached while others using those programs adhere to breeding on the first heat after 12 months of age. One thing often referred to in the literature is that young heifers like that routinely have higher conception rates (70%) than 17-18 month old heifers (60%), can have less edema at calving and less difficult calvings due mainly to a smaller calf. Heifers on aggressive growing programs can easily reach 1300 lbs at 22 months of age.

Average age at first calving across North America is about 26 months, while a recent number from the UK is 28 months. Reports show a double edged benefit from calving at 22 rather than 26 months, Firstly there is a $300 saving in raising cost. Secondly there is $7,000 more milk revenue in their lifetime.

Pick the Right Genetics

For breeders focusing on milk as their major source of revenue the Bullvine has frequently produced criteria and lists of bulls to use (Read more: Mating Recommendations). The factors important to efficient milk production can also be important to getting healthy calves and include, calving ease, fertility, temperament, mobility including rear legs rear view and feet and body condition score. Additionally it would be nice to know about heifer growth rates, disease resistance and ability to compete in large groups but without field data genetic evaluations cannot be produced. It is quite important to consider the heifer herd in addition to the milking females when making your breeding decisions.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

As breeders plan for their next calf crop it is time to thoroughly review heifer rearing practices. If the heifer herd on your farm is not vital to your milking operation or it is not already a profit center, then it is time to get your pencil out, calculate your heifer rearing numbers and make the decisions to realize more farm profit.  Ignoring today’s economic realities when it comes to the heifer herd can be very costly.


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