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Managing the expanding heifer population

Paul Dyk Published on 03 February 2011


A heifer is your future. Many farmers believe this to be true and have been committed to raising every heifer for their operation.



A lot of cash has been allocated to improve calf management, age at first calving, reproduction and genetics. But times are changing and heifer management will need to follow.

If you look at the last 90 years, we have increased the number of dairy heifers. In Figure 1 we can see that up to about 1960, the inventory of heifers above 500 lbs was about 20 to 25 percent of the cow herd.

There were a lot of bull-bred herds, but not all heifers stayed on the farm.

Likely, many of the heifers born back then ended up as a steak dinner. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s we pushed that heifer inventory number closer to 40 to 45 percent of the cow herd. More herds in confinement pushed cull rates to 30 to 40 percent; in the last 40 years, all the heifers have been needed to replace exiting cows.

Starting in 2006, there has been a radical change in the dairy industry. Finally, after years of promise, sexed semen began to be used.



If you look at Figure 2 , you can see that the use of sexed semen has been pushing 120,000 to 150,000 units a month.

Albert DeVries of the University of Florida has estimated that a total of 722,000 extra heifers have calved or will calve from 2008 to 2012.

When I look at the National Agricultural Statistical Service inventory numbers in the last 25 years, I can see heifer inventories rising in the last few years.

When I have talked to various producers in the last year, I hear the same story – “Our heifer facilities are full.”

At this point it doesn’t seem likely we are going to see less heifers in the future. At some point the marketplace will likely adjust, but this might take a while. So how do we manage these higher heifer inventories?

Let’s think about the options:


1. Expand and milk more cows. For some this might be a short-term option, but capital to build, land base and farm goals will limit many farms in following this option. And this is only short term; in two years the same heifer problem will arise on farms.

2. Cull more cows. Many well-managed farms have pushed their cull rates closer to 20 percent. For some farms, it may be more profitable to sell high-SCC cows, lame cows and cows with repro problems.

However, culling is not the preferred method to solve these issues. Milk quality protocols, regular hoof trimming and well-managed repro programs are likely more cost-effective management strategies on those issues.

Some might argue that higher cull rates could be justified by the higher genetic merit of these two-year-olds. So that raises the question in my mind about the cost of culling. A healthy mature cow will outproduce a healthy two-year-old.

I decided to figure out how much milk you would lose if you went from a 20 percent cull rate to a 35 percent cull rate. On a high-producing herd, you might lose about 4.5 lbs just because you are milking more two-year-olds than mature cows.

Yes, yes, the two-year-olds might have lower SCC, they might breed back faster and they might be healthier.

But 4.5 lbs on a 100-cow herd is nearly $25,000 a year in lost income ($15 per hundredweight); and on a 1000-cow herd, nearly $250,000.

Are you sure you want a higher cull rate? Maybe higher beef prices are an incentive to sell, but what happens when those prices drop?

3. Sell cows or heifers for dairy. If you can sell heifers or dairy cows for $2,000 apiece, this might be a great option. However, I have heard of heifers selling overseas for $1,500 and local springers selling for $1,300.

When the average cost to raise a heifer is about $1,500 (not including the value of the calf), this doesn’t seem to be a great option.

4. Sell or cull heifer calves. OK, this seems like blasphemy. Don’t we believe that heifers are the future? Well, maybe some of them are the future, but not others.

With high heifer inventories and low springer prices, it makes sense to evaluate whether you can afford to keep every calf. If we are going to consider culling or selling calves, here are some strategies:

• Be confident of your heifer needs. If you are thinking about selling some of your calves, work through some scenarios to target your needs accurately. Don’t forget about risk and unforeseen problems like a mastitis outbreak.

• Cull unhealthy calves first. Calves that have had respiratory problems should be the first to go; they will not be productive cows, despite what the genetics forecast.

• Identify superior genetics. If you plan on selling some calves, make sure you can identify the best genetics. Breed associations, A.I. companies and DHIA have traditionally been great places to identify the best calves using dam and sire info.

New technology might make this process even more accurate. For about $40 (SNP test) you might be able to take a blood or hair sample and get high reliability results for net merit. If you are investing and choosing only a limited number of calves, this might be a good option.

• Marketing heifer calves. Currently a heifer calf might be worth $300 more than a bull calf. Great!

If you want to reduce heifer numbers, this $300 might be the most profit you will see in the next two years from some heifers. However, if heifer inventories continue to rise, heifer calves may eventually be worth less than bull calves.

• Facilities and labor. As you think about the replacement herd, you need to consider your facilities. If your facilities and labor are beyond capacity, there may be unintended rewards for a smaller replacement herd.

Comfortable heifer facilities that are not overfilled will likely produce a better two-year-old.

• Selling all calves. If it takes more money to raise a heifer than it costs to buy a springer, should you sell all your calves? Some have tried this option in the past.

Predicting future heifer prices and purchasing healthy cattle with great genetics makes this option somewhat risky. Do you really want to be caught with no heifers if the price of springers jumps up?

5. Finish some heifers for the beef market. I don’t know of anyone finishing dairy heifers for beef, but if you have homegrown corn, and with current beef prices, this might be an option for the future.

The beef industry has finished extra heifers for beef for a long time. That said, we know that finishing dairy steers is not the same as finishing beef steers; I would suspect that finishing dairy heifers profitably might be a whole other ballgame. PD

—Excerpts from University of Wisconsin Dairy Frontiers newsletter, Vol. 4, Issue 5.

Paul Dyk
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  • Dairy & Livestock Extension Agent
  • University of Wisconsin Extension
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