September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.

Heifers - Profit makers or takers?

By Jim Linn- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

A couple of weeks ago, I heard a good seminar presented by Dr. Dave Combs from the University of Wisconsin-Madison on heifer raising costs. His point was simple in that heifer raising costs are a large part of a dairy farm's expense and when we look to reduce expenses on farms, look at the cost and number of heifers raised. The top three costs ($/cwt) of producing milk are feed, heifer raising or replacements and labor. On most farms, replacement cost is second only to feed cost. Future milk production on all dairy farms resides in the quality and genetic superiority of the heifers replacing lactating cows so replacement cost is an essential part of producing milk. The high cost of feed and low forage inventories the past couple of years have made us more aware of how much feed heifers consume from birth to freshening and the cost to raise them. In his seminar, Dr. Combs described three key areas for profitable heifer raising: 1) Don't underfeed baby calves, 2) Look to reduce feed costs in weaned heifers and 3) Don't raise more heifers than you need.
The actual cost of raising heifers from birth to freshening will vary with each farm, but Dr. Combs cited a $2,274.00 cost from a recent survey of 32 farms in Wisconsin. Feed accounted for 56 percent of the cost and labor 16 percent. Bedding was the third highest cost at 5 percent with all the other items (breeding, health, death loss, housing, management) accounting for less than 25 percent of the total cost. Feed is a major cost in raising heifers and lowering feed costs can have a big impact on both total farm and heifer raising expenses. However, feed costs are not the same across all phases of heifer growth and feeding cheap feed in some phases of growth will curtail heifer growth and reduce future milk production more than the feed cost saving.
Based on the Wisconsin survey, the average total daily cost for raising a calf up to 10 weeks of life is $5.34/day. Feed accounts for about 45 percent of the cost. Milk and/or milk replacer (MR) is a large part of this cost based on how much is fed and the cost of the milk or milk replacer fed. The following table compares the cost of the three major liquid calf feeds fed on farms. Whole milk and the intensified or accelerated milk replacer are the highest cost/lb. of DM, but also provide the most energy and nutrients. A factor that definitely needed to be considered during the cold stress this winter.

Nutrient 20:20 MR Intensified MR Whole milk
CP 22 28 27
Fat 22 20 30
ME, kcal/lb. DM 1.97 2.2 2.4
$/unit $75/50 lb. $90/50 lb. $20/cwt
$/lb. DM $1.35 $1.62 $1.67
Source - Dr. Dave Combs Univ. of WI-Madison

There are now several studies to show calves that double their birth weight by weaning (56 days of age) produce more milk during first lactation than calves gaining less weight with traditional milk replacer programs. The intensified or whole milk program costs more, up to double the cost, but higher milk production at an earlier calving age more than compensate for the higher early life feed cost. If the goal is to double a calf's birth weight by weaning (56 days), the minimum average daily gain has to be 1.8 lbs./day which will require more nutrient dense feeds and a higher feeding amount than the traditional 1 lb../day of MR. Limiting nutrient intake to reduce feed cost for a calf is not a good decision and ultimately costs more in calf health and future milk income.
The daily cost reported in the 2013 Wisconsin survey to raise a heifer from 10 weeks of age to freshening (22 to 23 months) was $3.04/day. As with the calf, feed accounts for the majority of the cost at 56 percent of the total and labor is the second highest cost at almost 20 percent of the total. All other costs accounted for 25 percent of the total or about $0.75/day. High feed costs the last couple of years have been a factor, but there are opportunities to reduce raising costs both within and outside of feed. How many heifers raised and how long they are on feed before freshening are major costs. If the average cost is $3.04 to raise the heifer, reducing calving age by 30 days saves $91/heifer, but do not reduce calving age below 22 months. Dr. Combs cited a case study from a Wisconsin dairy farm (440 milking cows) that showed heifer raising costs could be reduced by $59,000 per year raising 34 less heifers than the average number (196 heifers) needed for annual replacement.
Most dairy farms are raising more heifers than they need. The USDA dairy statistics last month showed dairy replacements over 500 lbs. at 4.539 million head, about the same as last year, but the smallest total since 2010. Almost 3 million of the heifers are expected to calve in 2014 for a total national dairy herd replacement rate of 32.4 heifers/100 milk cows. The national milk cow herd is not growing so the demand for heifers has decreased and is one of the reasons top dairy springing heifer prices are $1,400 to $1,800 and less than the average cost cited to home raise a heifer. Selling springing heifers is not profitable for most farms, so the earlier age they can be culled, the less raising expense there will be.
Opportunities to reduce feed cost of growing heifers exist. Weighback feeding from the cow herd is one opportunity for heifers over a year of age. This feed is not free and balancing a ration that contains variable amounts and nutrient content from weighbacks is challenging. It is easy to fatten heifers on cow weighbacks or under feed them and miss the target goal of gaining at a steady rate of 1.8 to 2.0 lbs./day. Cost saving from this can easily be lost if lactating cows are overfed just to have weighback left for heifers.
Heifers can easily gain 1.8 to 2 lbs./day on high quality haylage and corn silage. Heifers do not need the best quality forage on the farm, but they do need good quality. Feeding some, key word here is some, lower quality forage along with high quality is one option if the price is right or adding some straw to the diet for filler may be another option. Limit feeding heifers is often recommended, but generally not a viable option on most farms as bunk space is limited and knowing exactly how much to limit feed is another problem. Low cost protein feeds such as distillers grains, soybean meal and urea are good feed options for heifers. Byproduct feeds often fit into a lower cost heifer ration as well. Ionophores (Rumensin, Bovatec) are very cost effective and a good feed additive option for heifers. The best and lowest cost ration will be one that does not over or under supply nutrients and supports the target growth rate of 1.8 to 2.0 lbs./day.
Heifer raising is a major expense on dairy farms and they cannot be a forgotten animal in the operation. Heifers from 6 to 20 months of age can eat a lot of feed. Their rations are not evaluated and balanced frequently enough on most farms to capitalize on low cost heifer feeding opportunities. A monthly evaluation of the heifer nutrition program seems prudent and cost effective to get the size and quality of the heifer needed to enter the milking herd.[[In-content Ad]]


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