My November column focused on reducing feed costs and mentioned heifer replacement costs as an area to evaluate. At that time, we could see the tidal wave of higher protein and energy costs building. Today, this wave has hit shore and washed away much of the profit margins experienced the past several months.  
    I served on the planning committee for the recent virtual Carver County Dairy Expo, and we were pleased to have a great lineup of speakers. Dr. Jud Heinrichs, Penn State University, shared a timely topic titled “Keeping a Check on Dairy Replacement Costs.” He had several key take-home messages to maximize your investment in non-productive dairy replacement assets.  
    The cost to raise a heifer from birth to calving is $2,025 per head in Pennsylvania. This cost is similar to that reported by the University of Wisconsin. Both figures are prior to this most recent uptick in corn and protein prices. The current market value of springers varies across the country, but reported values are about half or less of true input costs to raise a heifer. The days of selling springing heifers for a profit appear to be behind us.  
    It is important to predict how many heifers you need to maintain herd size. Heifer culling rates and reproductive success have a huge impact on the number of replacements needed within a herd. Sexed semen and beef semen are common strategies to control heifer inventory on farms. Heinrichs focused on the following three key factors to reduce the cost of raising heifers.  
    – Culling rates. The average culling rate across the United States is 38% or 2.6 years of productive herd life. Dr. Albert De Vries at the University of Florida generated a model showing the value of a mature herd. Herd replacement costs decline as culling rate decreases. Heinrichs showed an example where a 20% reduction in culling rate (40% to 32%) results in 24.6% reduction in heifer raising costs. However, genetic opportunity costs go up with lower cull rates and fewer additional young animals with higher genetic potential.  
    – Age at first calving. As an industry, we see a continued reduction in age at first calving. The ideal AFC target is dependent on several factors and somewhat herd specific. Heinrichs suggested that most herds’ AFC should be between 22 and 23 months. He indicated that reducing AFC by one month will result in 4.3% reduction in heifer-rearing costs.    
    – Heifer feed cost. Feed costs are by far the largest input for heifer production in most systems and can account for 10% to 15% of the total farm expense. The most expensive period to raise a heifer is the first two months of life. The cheapest time to raise a heifer is post-weaning. A 2020 Cornell study found $3.25 per-day feed costs and $1.70 per-day labor costs for preweaned calves. This decreased dramatically in the few months post-weaning ($1.50 per-day feed and $0.22 per-day labor). Your costs may vary from this, but the relative trend is likely consistent.
    Heinrichs cautioned that overfeeding milk is expensive and can also limit starter grain intake. Introducing starter grain and free-choice water to calves within the first few days of life results in the production of volatile fatty acids essential for papillae development in the rumen wall. Calf health and performance are both compromised with poor rumen development. It is common to see daily gains plateau at weaning in calves that are not consuming adequate starter. Heinrichs recommended weaning calves somewhere between 6 to 8 weeks for most farms.
    A growing heifer can capture more energy from a given feedstuff because her rate of passage is lower than a lactating cow. Feed efficiency in older heifers is dependent on feed types and feeding strategies. Heinrichs shared data supporting increased feed efficiency by limit-feeding heifers versus feeding ad libitum. However, this feeding approach requires several management factors to be in place, such as adequate bunk space and frequent feed pushups.
    The goal of raising dairy heifers is to minimize costs without sacrificing future production potential. Several management systems can work well, depending on individual farm facilities, resources and management preferences.
    Look for opportunities to control heifer numbers, reduce age at first calving if above 23 months and keep feed costs under control. Heinrichs offered these heifer-raising savings opportunities:
    – Keep mortality and morbidity low.
    – Do not overfeed liquid feeds.
    – Wean at reasonable ages with good rumen development.
    – Grow calves and heifers at the right rates.
    – Use good breeding management.
    – Take advantage of improved feed efficiency in growing heifer rations.
    Barry Visser is a nutritionist for Vita Plus.