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How much does it really cost to raise a heifer?

Progressive Dairyman Editor Peggy Coffeen Published on 10 May 2019

As costs increase and values decline, how much does it really cost in today’s market to raise a heifer calf from baby on up to 24 months old?

Iowa State University is helping dairy producers determine the answer to that burning question with recently released updated estimates of heifer-raising costs for 2019 in the form of two helpful charts that break down heifer cost per day by weight and feed costs, along with an itemized budget. 

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These numbers are based on 2013 costs produced by the University of Wisconsin – Extension and account for 2018-19 feed prices and a 10 percent increase in other costs (see Table 1). According to Dairy Field Specialist Larry Tranel, a “slide rule” for heifer-raising costs at various weights with labor included would be $2.33 per head per day at 700 pounds, with a 10-cent slide down for each 100 pounds under, and a 15 to 25-cent slide up for each 100 pounds above that weight. Feed costs alone represent about a 15-cent per day change for each hundredweight (see Table 2). While actual costs vary from farm to farm, this thumb rule may serve as a helpful guide for ballparking costs.

heifer costs per day

“Conversations with dairy producers reveal that many short change the cost of raising heifers. So whether raising your own or raising for others, it benefits all in the industry to know costs,” Tranel says. “For those that raise their own, why raise more than one needs?”

These tools can be valuable in making decisions on how many heifers to raise, as well as keeping them onsite or sending them to a grower after weaning.

heifer costs

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Heifer-raising budget

The ISU Extension team’s heifer-raising budget includes feed costs, livestock costs, and facilities and equipment costs (see Table 3). The estimated cost per head per day to raise one heifer for 24 months is $2.67 per day (labor included), or $2.30 per day (labor not included). 

heifer raising budget

What’s the breakeven on selling raised heifers?

Tranel notes that a dairy producer looking to sell raised heifers today would have to capture $2,241 per head in order to break even with what it costs to raise that animal for 24 months. This figure includes labor and management, the ownership cost of $110 (interest on investment) and the initial calf value of $175. 

Where do the opportunities lie?

Using the example of a 100-cow herd raising 40 replacements each year, Tranel identifies these areas of opportunity:

  • Reduce age at first calving: Getting heifers into the milking herd just one month sooner can cut costs. Reducing the heifer-raising period from 24 months to 23 months saves approximately $93 per head, or $3,720 per year for 40 replacements.

  • Reduce cull rate: A 10 percent reduction in the milking herd cull rate would further reduce heifers needed by four, thus reducing raising costs by another $7,892.

  • Rotational grazing: Studies prove rotational grazing of heifers reduces raising costs.

Custom heifer raising

The typical cost to raise a calf from birth to weaning is $5 to $6 per day, or $336 over 56 days. Subtract this, along with ownership cost and initial value of the heifer, and the cost to raise from weaning to calving is $1,620 over 674 days, or $2.40 per day for the average-weight heifer. 

Cost to raise one calf for 24 months:

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Cost from birth to weaning = 56 days x $6 per day = $336

Cost from weaning to calving* = 675 x $2.40 per day = $1,620

*Does not include cost from birth to weaning, cost of ownership and the initial value of the heifer)

“For custom heifer raisers, a fair price is the goal for an equitable arrangement, or else it might invite its own destruction,” Tranel says. “Note, these are best guess estimates, and some operations may be significantly higher or lower costs than these estimates.”  end mark

Peggy Coffeen
  • Peggy Coffeen

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