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0609 PD: Is it time to bring heifers home from the grower?

Susan Day Published on 09 April 2009

In today’s milk price environment, everyone is looking for ways to improve efficiency and reduce expenses.

One area which always attracts attention on the profit and loss statement is calf and heifer raising. This is particularly true if you’re working with a custom grower. While bringing calves and heifers home may seem an easy cost-cutting solution, important questions must be answered before making that decision.

Assessing your heifer grower
Communication is an important part of the relationship with your calf and heifer grower, and now is a good time to update your grower on your farm’s goals and management expectations. A good place to start is the age at which you want heifers to first join the milking herd.



Heifers that calve for the first time at 22 or 23 months old will return on the heifer-raising investment much sooner than their older counterparts. Reducing age at first calving is worth over $100 a month, as feed costs are offset by income from milk production. This is the best way to save money on your calf-raising program.

If your goal is reduced age at first calving, a discussion with your heifer raiser about calf nutrition is a must. Heifers should reach 82 percent of their mature size at calving and 55 percent of mature size at breeding. The target growth system, developed by university experts participating in the Bovine Alliance on Management and Nutrition, is a good model to follow.

The type of growth is important to stress with your heifer raiser. Weight gain does not necessarily mean healthy gain. Calves should achieve set targets for height and length. Penn State University has published a growth chart to monitor performance, which is shown in Figure 1*.

Illness and death rates are also critical areas to monitor:

• Mortality rates
These should be reviewed on an ongoing basis with financial responsibility for death loss spelled out in any agreement between you and your grower. For calves prior to weaning, mortality rate should be less than 5 percent. From weaning to freshening, death loss should be less than 2 percent.


• Morbidity rates
It’s also important to keep a handle on how many of your heifers faced a disease challenge and how often it happened. Heifers who were sick as calves may never reach their genetic potential. Calfhood diseases can decrease feed intake, as well as cause tissue damage and scarring. This can have an effect on subsequent calf survivability and productivity.

In an observational study of 34 Canadian dairy farms, calves treated for scours were 2.9 times more likely to have an age at first calving greater than 30 months. Calves treated for pneumonia in the first 90 days were 2.5 times more likely to die between 90 days and first calving. Knowing disease incidence rates also provides insight into your grower’s performance.

Establish and evaluate cost expectations on an ongoing basis. If your goal is to achieve an age at first calving under 24 months, a higher investment into calf nutrition of as much as $1 more per calf per day is needed. This may increase the rate at which you need to pay your heifer raiser, but it will be returned by changing the heifer from a cost-center to a revenue-maker as much as two months earlier than her conventional counterparts. Monitor on an ongoing basis to ensure that heifers are reaching appropriate age targets and are ready for breeding and freshening.

Should you bring heifers home?
There are several important things to consider as you evaluate the decision to bring your heifers home from a custom grower. On the surface, it may seem that this would be a more cost-effective alternative. But according to the study of 49 Wisconsin dairy farms and custom growers, the cost of raising calves from birth to weaning is $5.59 per day for freestall herds, with heifer costs from weaning to calving averaging $2.04 per day. While current unused labor and facilities may help reduce those numbers for your farm, a fair evaluation of facilities, feed supplies and labor availability must be done before making a decision.

• Facilities
According to Dan McFarland, an agricultural engineer with Penn State Cooperative Extension, the first question you need to ask as you evaluate an existing empty building is: “Why is it empty?”

“It takes about two or three years for people to forget why they moved cattle out of a building,” McFarland says. “The requirements for a used building are the same as a new one. We’re not housing ‘used’ heifers of any kind.”


Heifers need a clean, comfortable, dry place to rest that supplies confident footing and ample room for feed and water. Post-weaning heifers need about 30 to 40 square feet a piece on a bedded pack, while older heifers require 65 to 80 square feet. Bunk space needs to be 18 inches per heifer under 1 year old and 24 inches for heifers over 1 year old. If headlocks are used, there should be at least one for each heifer in the group.

Mechanically ventilated barns should provide five to 10 air exchanges per hour and up to 50 or 60 in hot weather. One way to approach a retrofit is to open up the front of the barn (leeward side) and install an outside feeding line. Fans should be placed in the bedding area.

Older heifers tend to handle heat better than younger ones and are better candidates for housing in a retrofit facility. Regardless, you should make sure the housing meets basic needs of heifers and caregivers.

• Feed supplies
Adequate hay and forage supplies play a critical factor in deciding to bring heifers home from a grower. Dry matter intake for breeding-age heifers up to calving will increase from 18 pounds to nearly 30, with over 75 percent of it coming from forage supplies. Additionally, post-weaning heifers to breeding will consume from 11 to 15 pounds of dry matter each day, half of which will come from forages. Make sure your supply of high-quality forages can feed the number of cattle on your dairy, both milking cows and growing heifers.

• Labor
Producers tend to overlook the labor and management costs for raising heifers. Raising healthy herd replacements requires someone with time and skills to monitor their growth. Wisconsin researchers reported that it costs $2.49 per calf per day or about $153 per calf in labor to raise her from birth to weaning. This assumes rates of $12 per hour for labor and $20 per hour for management. Once calves reach weaning, labor and management costs dropped to $0.39 per heifer per day from weaning to freshening.

The decision to discontinue working with your heifer grower should be made with care and by evaluating all of the potential costs of raising heifers on your own. There may be tax implications which should not be ignored. In a down economy, communication between you and your grower is key for ensuring that the dairy’s goals and needs are met. PD

*Figures omitted but are available request to

Susan Day
Young Animal Technical Manager
Land O’Lakes Purina Feed