Manage dairy heifer feed cost control points

Posted on March 2, 2016 in

By Pat Hoffman
With the cycle of lower milk prices upon us, we are often asked how to control feed costs, including the cost of feeding dairy heifers. 

By Pat Hoffman
With the cycle of lower milk prices upon us, we are often asked how to control feed costs, including the cost of feeding dairy heifers. 

According to a 2013 University of Wisconsin-Extension survey, the average feed cost of a dairy heifer from weaning to calving is $1.71 per day.  Daily heifer feed cost (or ration cost) are marginally lower today as compared to 2013 due to falling grain, protein and commodity prices, but present estimates of daily heifer feed cost are still near $1.50 per day. 

Reducing the daily ration cost of feeding dairy heifers is a nickel-and-dime business primarily because dairy heifers are fed high-forage diets that are in inventory and, thus, are somewhat inflexible to change.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean that heifer feed cost cannot be reduced or controlled.

Another way of looking at dairy heifer feed cost is to view it as total dairy heifer feed cost, which includes the daily feed cost, the number of days on feed, and the number of heifers fed.  Controlling the number of heifers fed or how many days they are fed are critical control points in total dairy heifer feed cost.  

With these thoughts in mind, here are some points of consideration to control dairy heifer feed cost.

Cull excess heifers
One very direct way to control total heifer feed cost is to simply feed fewer heifers.  Many of our operations have excess inventories of heifers and a strategic reduction in excess capacity has two benefits.

Average yearly feed cost is reduced approximately $550 for each heifer not fed.  The selective culling of some heifers to reduce overcrowding benefits the feed efficiency of remaining heifers.  A recent UW study demonstrated that overcrowded heifers have more variable growth and variable feed efficiency. 

Culling of dairy heifers is a complex management decision because heifer inventories required in the future need to be considered and deciding which heifers to cull can be a very challenging decision.  However, we do have technologies at hand to make both of these decisions a little easier. 

First, we can use a bit more sexed semen to increase the heifer inventory albeit on a delayed basis.  Second, we can use tools like genomics or working with our breed studs to rank heifers by their genetic parent average and cull accordingly.

Reduce days on feed
Whenever we think of reducing days on feed, it is common to think of breeding earlier and reducing the age to first calving.  That process is often very hard to do because it takes a whole-system change to effectively accomplish, including different diets, growth rates, breeding protocols and potentially different heifer housing. 

A simpler, can-do-right-now approach is to limit the number of breedings per heifer with a rigid limit.  For example, many dairy herds are implementing a three A.I. service limit on dairy heifers to avoid calving any heifer that gets too old or, in effect, has too many days on feed.  Daily feed cost of heifers greater than 24 months of age is even more expensive with estimates of $2.50 per day.  As such, daily feed cost of late-bred heifers can cost an extra $75 per month. 

This type of breeding protocol has additional benefits.  It helps reduce over-conditioning, overcrowding and heifer manure output because these problems are directly linked to older heifers that have been fed too long.  A side benefit of this practice is we also reduce the number of over-conditioned heifers at calving, which has a carryover effect on transition management and health care costs.                                                                                                                

Increase heifer diet precision
Field studies have demonstrated that it is common to slightly over-feed protein, minerals and vitamins to dairy heifers in an effort to assure dietary adequacy.  Modestly over-supplementing protein, minerals and vitamins to dairy heifers is often done as a matter of course or just to make it simple.  
When milk prices are lower, however, increasing the precision of heifer diet formulation can make a difference.  Increasing the frequency of forage sampling and using more detailed nutrient analysis, combined with increased frequency of heifer ration formulation, can help tailor heifer diets to their exact protein, mineral, and vitamin requirements. 
Will it save a lot of cost?  Probably not, but saving 3 cents a day on a 1,000 heifers is worth $10,000 per year in feed savings.  A few pennies can add up!

This article originally appeared in the December 2015 edition of Vita Plus Starting Strong.  Click here for other articles on calf and heifer nutrition and management.

About the author:  Pat Hoffman is a Vita Plus dairy technical support specialist.  He received professor emeritus status after completing a 35-year career with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Dairy Science.  Based at the Marshfield ag research Station, Hoffman’s UW-Extension services included application of dairy research and the development of dairy outreach education programs.  His research focused on development of dairy replacement heifers.  Hoffman earned his bachelor’s degree from UW-Platteville and his master’s in dairy science from UW-Madison.  He is a member of the American Dairy Science Association and previously served as president of the Midwest Branch.

Category: Calf and heifer nutrition
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