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Old heifer-raising ideals may not be the way of the future

Luke Miller for Progressive Dairy Published on 26 October 2021
Heifers in a pen

As I travel around the country and go from farm to farm, I see a good trend beginning to take hold as dairy producers are understanding the value of carrying extra heifer inventory.

Since the inclusion of sexed semen into dairy breeding programs, dairies can easily be “heavy” on heifer numbers. This is an amazing technology that allows us to produce more heifers than may be needed, but when we look at the drain these animals can put on the dairy economy, several things come into view. Replacement cost, calf value, production standards, genetic progress and labor concerns are just a few of the items that need to be processed to make an informed decision on your heifer inventory choices.

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To begin this discussion, we do have to get a little philosophical. For the known history of dairy production in North America, management has dictated that heifers be cherished and treasured as the lifeblood of sustainability for your dairy. I have heard over and over, “Yeah, growing up I knew I was going to be in trouble if we lost any calves.” Make no mistake, I am in no way suggesting we should not have good husbandry for our youngstock. In fact, I would suggest we care for and manage them even better than before – but only the ones we choose to retain.

Keep in mind, there is a ratio of first-lactation animals in your herd that is the most productive. Heifers by physiology are about 80% to 85% of the size and the production value of a periparturient cow. So just adding first-lactation animals into the herd because we have them may in fact cost us production in the herd. So what are some ideas to think about that will allow us to capitalize on this untapped potential in our herds?

In the last 10 years, “beef on dairy” or “dairy beef” phrases have taken off like wildfire as a way to make some extra income from drop calves or to capitalize on higher prices and better growth rates for feeders or finish cattle. I think we need to bring in another technique from our friends in the beef world and start looking at only retaining the heifers we need. Beef producers do not cull mother cows unless they absolutely must, as they are the breadwinners of the herd. Heifers will be inserted into the management chain only as needed to fulfill a need, whether for space or replacement. If we investigate doing this similarly in dairy management, we need to reverse our thinking and start from the end of a heifer’s life cycle.

To begin, we need to decide on the number of heifers we would ideally like to insert into the herd every month to maintain current population but not overwhelm the lactation ratio we choose. Dr. Jud Heinrichs from Penn State University has published equations to help us figure it out.

First, we calculate the heifers we need: (herd size[total]) x (cull rate) x (age at first calving ÷ 24) x (1 + non-completion rate for heifers). The non-completion rate being heifers that are born alive but never make it to the milk barn. Second, we calculate the number we produce: (herd size[total]) x (12 ÷ calving interval) x (percent female calves) x (1 – calf mortality rate) x (24 ÷ age at 1st calving). Calf mortality counts deaths in first 48 hours after birth.

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These two equations allow us to get an idea of our heifer surplus. These are the animals we carry in inventory that are costing us money, space or potential. Opinions vary, but I have seen operations as low as 33% and as high as 45% with first-lactation animals in the herd. If we are going to limit ourselves to raising fewer heifers than we are producing, where can we find advantages? Do we raise dairy beef or do we look at exclusively sexed semen, or embryo transfer for high genetic potential, or should we have cows that only milk and don’t get pregnant? What can we do with the extra “cow womb” space now that we don’t need every cow to deliver a calf into the herd?

There are a few items we need to investigate to realize the financials for this management change:

  • Heifer value: Very rarely can we produce a heifer for less than the cost it takes to procure a heifer. Sexed semen and better reproductive husbandry techniques have assured us there is a surplus of heifers in the marketplace, thereby keeping the price down. Produce > Procure.

  • Calf value: With the new management tools we have at our disposal, we can have beef on dairy or 90% female calves rather than dairy breed bull calves. Genetics aside, the majority of the time, a beef calf is worth more than a dairy calf. Beef > Dairy heifer > Dairy bull.

  • Genetics: If you have very valuable cows in the seedstock realm, then you may be able to reap the financial rewards and have heifers that can sell for more than it costs you to bring them to market. For the rest of us, we are just raising good animals. When keeping fewer heifers, we can focus on the genetics we want to retain. Genomic testing or parent averages can make sure we are keeping the correct heifers.

  • Production standards: If you are only keeping the best of your heifer herd, production is bound to increase, as well as genetic progress. When you keep the best of the best and then breed back to the best of the best, we can make significant changes in a short period of time.

  • Labor issues: If you have read any of my previous articles in Progressive Dairy, you will definitely see a trend; I often bring labor into the discussion. I have yet to go to any dairy in any part of the states and not hear that labor is the primary or secondary concern. This issue is widespread and not going away. If we can focus the number of teammates we have and then help them to be better in their roles, it is a win-win scenario.

Economically, every dairy is different in lots of ways. Whether you sell extra feed, raise beef for sale, buy less feed, this analysis and change in philosophy may be of benefit. There will be considerable effort required to make change happen and for it to work.

First steps to get started are to use the two equations above, add 5% to 10% for safety and look at exactly how many heifers you need every month to maintain your herd. We cannot automatically say this will work for you, as this discussion is much more in-depth than an article can address. As with almost everything on a dairy operation, quality management and a team approach can make these scenarios achievable.  end mark

PHOTO: To maximize production, farms should evaluate their replacement heifer numbers and only raise the ones they need. Dairy beef may be a great option to fill extra “cow womb” space. Photo by Mike Dixon.

Luke Miller
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