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Do we really need to raise all these heifers?

Randall Greenfield Published on 30 April 2013

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Is your heifer-raising operation a profitable one?

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How many heifers do you need to support your dairy herd’s turnover rate?

Should you consider culling some of your youngstock?

If you are a dairy producer, you’ve probably asked or been asked these questions recently.

Historically, dairy producers have strived to maximize the number of heifer calves born on their farms, the number of heifers kept alive and the number of heifers with a successful breeding outcome.

After all, “too many heifers” simply meant an extra, usually very profitable, cash crop. Producers that consistently sold extra springing heifers were likely good operators with excellent cattle.

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In general, these characteristics haven’t really changed – it’s still a good thing to have low death losses and get heifers pregnant efficiently.

What has changed is the cost to raise a heifer. In recent years, we’ve seen a significant increase in this cost without an appreciable increase in the value of a springing heifer.

Add in the relatively recent effects of sexed semen use on many dairies, and the scarcity of forages due to 2012’s drought, and you’re looking at a potentially significant replacement cost issue.

Nationally, we do not have an excessive dairy replacement epidemic. The USDA’s most recent numbers peg the number of heifers expected to calve in 2013 at about 32 percent of the nation’s current milking herd. However, evaluating a specific herd’s situation could still uncover some unrealized profit potential.

I recently estimated costs to raise a heifer calf from birth to calving using current market value on all feedstuffs and estimates on all other costs from the University of Wisconsin Extension 2007 survey on heifer-raising costs.

My total for all costs came to approximately $2,100 per head. If we add in just another $100 for the opportunity cost of selling the heifer calf at birth, the total cost for raising a heifer calf to 720 days today is a whopping $2,200.

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While some top-end genetics may command values higher than $2,200 for a springing heifer, the market for springers in my area is currently running about $1,500 to $1,600. Growing extra heifers to sell as springers is not a profitable enterprise given today’s economics.

What about keeping them in the herd instead of selling them as springers? In a non-expanding herd, any heifers kept to replace cows beyond what is needed will simply increase the share of first-lactation heifers that make up the milk cow herd. This will likely decrease the average production of the herd, reduce parlor efficiency and possibly reduce profits.

What does this mean for your dairy? Simply put, for a herd with no growth plans, current economics indicate you probably shouldn’t grow any more heifers than you need to supply replacements for your dairy herd. Of course, this assumes that the current economic conditions will apply in the future as well, but we all know this could change.

It can be tricky to develop a plan for raising only the number of heifers you need, but it must be done as opposed to randomly culling heifers to reduce replacement costs.

How many replacements do you need for your herd? Let’s use 500 cows for an example herd size (milking plus dry cows). The first thing you need to predict is your turnover rate. How many cows will you cull from the 500 in your herd?

This is a difficult number to predict with complete accuracy and will be different for every herd. Looking at your recent history will likely be your best guide. I’ve seen annual turnover rates drop to less than 20 percent during times of expansion, so rates this low are attainable.

However, estimating this number a bit on the high side is the safe way to go, as not having enough replacements and having to buy them may still be the bigger of two evils when considering genetics, biosecurity and other risks that come with bringing new animals into a closed herd. For our example, let’s use 30 percent for our predicted turnover rate.

That means we will need 150 heifers to replace our culled cows in the next year. We can then look at our inventory of calves and heifers and start culling accordingly, remembering that earlier culling will save the most cost.

Culling decisions can be made using many different criteria. The number of health treatments, genetics/pedigree, genomics and weight gain data can all be used to sort the animals that will likely be the poorest performers if all were calved. The more data you have on your animals, the better your decision is likely to be.

Longer term, even more options are available by changing your reproductive and calving programs to yield the number of heifer calves you want to meet your replacement needs.

Strategic culling of the youngstock herd is one option to control replacement costs. Another could be to breed the bottom share of your heifers or cows to beef bulls to get calves that could be sold for a premium, guaranteeing that these animals won’t be kept and grown.

Sexed semen could be used along with this strategy to increase the number of heifer calves from the top portion of the herd and allowing even more of the bottom to be bred to beef semen.

Remember all of these options assume that it is more expensive to raise a calf from birth to springer than the market value of the springer. If and when these conditions change, the most profitable herd replacement program structure will change as well.

Even if you don’t think you are raising more replacements than you need, an analysis of your program can make good economic sense. PD

Photo by PD staff.

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Randall Greenfield
Nutritionist
Vita Plus Corporation

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