Trends and opportunities in calf and heifer rearing costs – Dr. Matt Akins, University of Wisconsin-Madison
By Jenna Hurty-Person, Progressive Dairyman
Minimizing heifer raising costs without sacrificing heifer quality can be a challenge for many dairies. To help shed some light on this, Dr. Matt Akins, assistant scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, spoke at 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 these areas as bottlenecks or other management or feeding inefficiencies can quickly add up.
Overall, his research shows that costs to raise wet calves are roughly the same for calves raised in group pens with automated calf feeders or 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 the average cost to raise a heifer in 2015 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 costs 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 heifers, 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 producers aim to have their heifers calve in as close to 22 months as possible.
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 body weight by 12 months old, 13 months at most. This ensures heifers are ready for breeding at 13 months. Akins said 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 and 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 cull heifers between 10 and 12 months of age. He suggests this age range because the animals have not yet entered the reproduction program, 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 ways. First, farms can cull heifers that are not performing well, that 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. Akins said this method 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.
Akins recommended using a model-based decision-making tool to help, such as this one. 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.
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