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Dairy Focus: Know the Cost of Raising Replacement Heifers

J.W. Schroeder, NDSU Extension dairy specialist J.W. Schroeder, NDSU Extension dairy specialist
Variation in Feed Costs for 287 Heifer Groups on 62 Commercial Dairies in Wisconsin Variation in Feed Costs for 287 Heifer Groups on 62 Commercial Dairies in Wisconsin
Costs of Raising Heifers by Stage of Growth on 8 New York Dairy Farms Costs of Raising Heifers by Stage of Growth on 8 New York Dairy Farms
Dairy producers need to be aware of the cost of raising replacement heifers and find ways to reduce those costs.

By J.W. Schroeder, Dairy Specialist

NDSU Extension Service

Editors note: This is the third article in a series on the issues facing the region’s dairy farmers, particularly the impact of the expanding ethanol industry.

All our discussions so far have focused on dairy cows, but what about heifers? They eat, too!

The costs of raising dairy heifer replacements represent 20 percent to 25 percent of the total costs of milk production. Benchmarks for the economics of raising dairy heifers, whether custom or home raised, provide opportunities for application to individual farm situations and to identify cost-saving control areas. The investment in dairy heifers is an incentive to raise high-quality, productive heifers as economically as possible for the labor, feed resources and facility options available on each farm.

Keeping heifers healthy and attaining within breed growth goals at critical phases is essential to protect your investment. The number of replacements required to maintain herd size impacts overall heifer-raising costs. Feed and labor are key control factors that will impact the bottom line.

A study at the University of Wisconsin laid the groundwork for understanding cost relationships for raising heifers in the Midwest. The study also emphasized the variation among farms. This study surveyed 62 Holstein herds.

An average cost of raising heifers from birth to first calving age was $1,360, with a range of $922 to $1,807. Cost per day from birth to pre-freshening was $1.69 (range from $1.33 to $1.94). The highest costs were from birth to 9 weeks of age (average weaning age - 53 days), averaging $2.78 per calf daily (range $1.51 to $6.75).

Feed accounted for 40 percent, labor and management 38 percent, fixed costs 7 percent and variable costs 15 percent. From 9 weeks of age to pre-freshening, average daily costs were $1.61 per heifer (range $1.24 to $1.88), with feed accounting for 60 percent, labor and management 13 percent, variable costs 14 percent and fixed costs 13 percent.

Feed costs are the most prevalent area where costs can be refined. Understanding heifer nutritional requirements and how to adjust to changing environments without overconditioning is important.

Other feed cost factors include feeding precise amounts of minerals and vitamins; not overfeeding protein; using efficient bunk feeding management techniques; using acceptable management tools, such as ionophores; and keeping good control on forage costs. If opportunities are available to integrate intensive rotational grazing on the farm, you have potential for cost control with good management.

A three-year Minnesota study on a commercial livestock farm found that intensive rotational grazing of heifers from 400 to 800 pounds reduced total daily costs by 39 cents per heifer, compared with confinement heifers.

On most farms, the second highest cost for raising heifers is labor. Labor efficiencies should be measured to see where improvements can be made, especially from birth to weaning. Grouping heifers in relation to growth phase and ration formulation can improve labor management. The average heifers per labor hour is a criteria to evaluate labor efficiency.

In a Cornell study on eight New York dairy farms (average first calving age - 22.5 months, calving body weight - 1,302 pounds, average daily gain - 1.78 pounds), preweaned heifers per labor hour was nine and postweaned heifers was 66 per labor hour. Preweaning, the range was 6.7 to 11.4 heifers per labor hour and postweaning, 36.3 to 96.4 heifers per labor hour.

The Cornell study summarized the total investment for raising heifers by stage of growth. The average total investment for raising heifers on these eight New York dairies was $1,429 plus a $151 value put on each heifer. Feed accounted for 49 percent, labor 17 percent, interest on investment 7 percent and building overhead 5 percent.

Keeping heifers healthy, meeting growth goals without overconditioning, lowering calving age, lowering cull rates, reducing feed costs and improving labor management are key factors for heifer enterprise management.

The process starts with being able to provide a better picture of the heifer enterprise to help make good management decisions.

Agriculture Communication

Source:J.W. Schroeder, (701) 231-7663,
Editor:Ellen Crawford, (701) 231-5391,
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