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Opportunities in heifer raising: Keeping costs low

Progressive Dairyman Field Editor Jenna Hurty-Person Published on 21 September 2018

Minimizing heifer-raising costs without sacrificing heifer quality can be a challenge for many dairies. To help shed some light on this, Matt Akins, assistant scientist at the University of Wisconsin, spoke at the 2018 Vita Plus Calf Summit on some opportunities he sees in current heifer-raising practices.

Costs associated with raising calves

At present, labor and feed are the highest costs associated with raising wet calves according to a survey Akins recently conducted on dairy farms in the Upper Midwest. This is not surprising, but it highlights where farms should focus their efforts to decrease costs. While these costs are part of raising calves, it is important to maximize efficiency in the area, as bottlenecks or other management or feeding inefficiencies can quickly add up.

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Overall, his research shows that costs for raising wet calves are roughly the same whether calves are raised in group pens with automated calf feeders or if they are raised in individual pens. Farms raising calves on autofeeders have lower labor costs since they aren’t individually feeding calves, but they do tend to feed more milk, which leads to better growth and feed efficiency. This is good; however, the added milk increases feeding costs and, thus, overall calf costs. On the flip side, farms with individually housed calves tend to feed less milk, which saves on feeding costs, but they spend more on labor since employees need to individually feed calves.

One other expensive change Akins has seen in the past several years is the number of days a calf spends on milk. Given current research, he thinks weaning calves later is a good thing from a calf health and production standpoint, even if it does increase calf-raising costs.

Costs associated with raising heifers

Akins’ research showed that in 2015, the average cost to raise a heifer was about $2,100, but they saw a wide variation in this number. Some farms reported costs as low as $1,500, while others said it cost them $3,000 to raise a heifer. So why this wide variation and how do producers keep costs low?

Like calves, labor and feed are two of the highest costs for raising these animals, so being efficient and economical with both is essential. However, it is not necessarily the best area of focus when looking for areas to reduce costs. Instead, he said producers should dial in their reproduction program.

As long as heifers aren’t milking, they aren’t making the farmer money, so the sooner they calve in, the sooner they enter the milking parlor, but that does not mean producers should have heifers calve in as young as possible. In fact, Akins said research currently points to a drop in first-lactation milk production if heifers calve at 21 months or less. Instead, he recommended that producers aim to have their heifers calve in at 22 months and as close to 22 months as possible.

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To set them up for this, Akins said heifers need to gain 1.8 to 2 pounds per day in order to reach 55 percent of their mature bodyweight by 12 months old, 13 months at most. This ensures heifers are ready for breeding at 13 months. This age, Akins said, is key as the further a heifer gets past that 13-month age mark, the longer it takes her to get in the milking parlor and the more time she spends on feed without producing milk. While not every heifer will become pregnant after her first service, Akins said letting heifers have several chances to the point that they calve in after 25 months old is detrimental to the farm as it unnecessarily increases heifer-raising costs.

Decrease the number of replacement heifers

Many farms do their best to raise every heifer calf. However, Akins said, unless the farm needs every single one of those calves in their milking herd, it is in their best interest to limit the number of heifers they raise to the number of replacement heifers they actually need plus a few extra for breathing room. While this method does not reduce the cost per head, it decreases the number of head a dairy raises, thereby decreasing overall costs.

Ideally, Akins said producers should make culling decisions when heifers are between 10 and 12 months old. He suggested this age range as it mitigates costs because the animal has not entered the reproduction program yet, but it still gives farms time to evaluate calves, and it provides a cushion should the dairy end up needing those animals.

Akins said this can be done in a couple of ways. First, farms can cull heifers that are not performing as well, have been treated for disease multiple times or have lower genomic numbers. This way, the farm only raises its top heifers and is not faced with finding a place for excess replacement heifers down the road.

Second, producers can use beef semen and sell crossbred calves for beef. This also means the farm knows right away what they will do with the calf and can sell it immediately or raise it for beef. This method, Akins said, can look different depending on the farm’s needs and situation. Some farms may choose to breed the top animals to sexed semen and the bottom animals to bull semen. Others may choose to use conventional semen on some of the animals as well.

One tool Akins likes to use to for making decisions like this is on the University of Wisconsin – Madison Extension website. On this website, producers can set up hypotheticals, which can help them make more informed decisions about which culling methods are best for their operation.  end mark

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This article originally ran in the Vita Plus July 2, 2018, Starting Strong enewsletter.

Jenna Hurty-Person
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