How Many Heifers?

May 19, 2021

Tara Jo Bina
Countryside Feed Nutrition
In the past several years, great improvements in reproductive efficiency, as well as calf health practices and standards have hit the dairy industry. In many ways this has been a great feat, but in combination with the introduction of sexed semen, heifer numbers have grown past what is needed on many dairy farms. As we evaluate impacts surplus heifers, a few benefits to reducing inventory are evident: decreased stocking density alleviates the need to expand heifer facilities, and raising fewer, healthier calves reduces feed cost, labor cost, increases profitability, and helps maximize growth.
Raising excess heifers carries a hefty cost. Iowa State University published the average cost of raising a heifer from birth to calving in 2019 to be $2,241 or $3.07 per day. In a time when dairy profitability has been low for an extended period of time, it is hard to justify two years of negative cash flow funneled into excess heifers.
How do producers decide how many heifers should be kept back? Unfortunately, answering this question is not straight forward and each dairy is going to differ. There are several tools available to help those managing dairies to make good decisions when it comes to heifer inventory. One is the Penn State Dairy Herd Metrics web application, that offers an interactive spread sheet for producers to input their own information to calculate how many heifers are ideal to keep. Utilizing this tool requires a little homework and gathering of information. Dairymen will need to calculate or report:
  • Size goals: maintenance, growth, downsizing, etc.
  • Heifer age at first calving in months
  • Non-completion rate (number of heifers culled before completing their first lactation)
  • Calving interval
  • Percentage of dairy heifers produced
  • Heifer mortality rate
  • Current herd size
  • Cull rate
Once a producer figures how many heifers are needed to achieve their goals, the next question is how to reduce heifer inventory? Several tools can be combined to avoid raising excess heifers.
Selective culling of eligible heifers can utilize structural and visual evaluation, health records, and genetic potential. Keeping structurally sound heifers helps select for longevity in cows more likely to withstand pressures of milking. Health records are an essential tool, heifers that were injured, had a difficult birth, or that have been treated multiple times for moderate to severe illness generally do not reach their genetic potential. Many consultants and veterinarians suggest the 3-strike policy when it comes to treating a heifer. Genetic potential can be evaluated by looking at her pedigree or by genomic testing.
Another set of tools to consider revolve around selective breeding. Sexed semen is still a wonderful too utilize on heifers, and top cows to progress genetics and continue high producing cow lines. Traditional semen used on 2nd or 3rd breedings still offers the ability to get heifers while reducing costs of semen. Beef semen is a relatively new hot topic to produce dairy beef crosses. Cows that carry undesirable traits or low production cows are great candidates to produce higher value calves for the beef industry while keeping the cow in the milking herd.
There are many benefits to reducing heifer inventory and just as many options to consider in the process. Contact your Countryside Feed representative for more information or to discuss where your dairy stands!
Heifer Raising Costs in 2019.pdf
Penn State Dairy Herd Metrics

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