What is the Right Number of Heifers to Raise?
Managing heifer inventories and determining how many heifers to keep is a more frequent and varied discussion today than in the past.
If we go back 10-plus years, most dairy farms bred all of their cows and heifers for dairy calves and raised all heifer calves for dairy herd replacements. Today, we’re able to make more focused decisions on heifer inventory with the use of tools like sexed semen, genomics and herd management software to target heifer calves from higher genetic cows and beef calves from lower-end cows. With heifer raising costs continuing to rise with increases in feed price, labor and trucking, the decision on heifer inventory management becomes even more magnified. Keeping more heifers than needed ties up cash and may lower farm profitability if heifers or cows are sold for less than the cost to raise them.
As you look at costs in your heifer raising program, avoiding raising excess heifers is more effective than reducing cost per heifer. Due to the previously mentioned higher expenses, the all-in cost of raising a heifer to enter the milking herd is over $2,000 per animal. You can take steps to lower costs but don’t want to reduce inputs that impact the growth and health of the heifer. Anything that slows down the development of the heifer may result in a lighter weight heifer entering the herd which will cost more in lost milk production. With lower commodity prices on the horizon, the feed cost for raising a heifer may trend down but other costs may remain elevated causing the costs to raise a heifer to maturity continue to be $1,700-1,800 per heifer.
As you determine the number of heifers to raise, there are a number of helpful strategies to consider in managing your inventory, including:
- Knowing that dairy farms have successfully reduced the number of heifers needed for replacements. Compeer’s benchmarks for Midwest dairy farms reflect that heifer inventories were at 87% of the mature cow inventory in 2018. The benchmark for 2022 shows that heifer inventories have dropped to less than 75% of mature cow inventory. These herds have lowered heifer inventories and maintained cow numbers while also increasing milk production per cow.
- Managing the number of heifers you need upfront in your reproductive program rather than after the calf is born. Once a dairy heifer calf is born and you start raising her, you have already incurred a significant cost and will likely need to raise her to maturity to gain the best market value. By adjusting the balance between sexed dairy heifers and beef semen in your breeding program, you can narrow down the dairy heifer calves born to what you need.
- Setting realistic targets for replacement rates on your dairy. Compeer’s benchmark shows that the average replacement rate dropped from 38% in 2018 to 33% in 2022. This reflects continued progress in genetics, cow care and breeding programs that have enabled lower culling and death rates. To establish your target for replacement rate, evaluate your trends in culls and death loss along with the age distribution in your herd. Build in any plans for herd growth over the next two to three years. This allows you to identify the number of heifers needed annually to replace cows leaving the herd and to accomplish any planned growth.
- Further define the heifers needed on a monthly basis by evaluating your herd’s current calving distributions. There are likely peaks and valleys in monthly calvings on your dairy farm. During some months, you may want to increase sexed semen use to generate more heifers. In other months, you may want to decrease it when you expect heavier calvings.
- Build in a cushion for the number of heifers needed each month. While you are trying to limit the number of excess heifers, you don’t want to be short of your replacement needs for an extended period. We typically see farms add 10% extra to their targeted heifer needs each month to offset any short-term challenges in calving issues or sickness.
Looking ahead, we likely will continue to see higher costs to raise a heifer to enter the milking herd. Targeting the number of heifers you need and limiting the number of excess heifers is an effective strategy for managing total herd replacement cost.
The ability to lower heifer numbers starts with continued improvements in genetics and cow care to lower involuntary culling and death loss in the milking herd. We can take steps to target breedings for dairy heifers to our higher-end cows and heifers so that we produce the right amount of heifers for your herd’s replacement and growth plans. If properly planned and managed, building a sustainable and effective heifer program can ultimately lower your cost of production for you and your dairy business.