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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