MANITOWOC - Young heifers no longer grow up on Soaring Eagle Dairy farm in Newton.
Like thousands of other young cows born in Wisconsin, they are shipped to western states to eat and grow from the time they are about five months old until they reach 20 months — when they are ready to give birth and become milking cows themselves.
"The raising of young livestock is one of the greatest expenses for dairy farmers," said Julie Maurer, who owns and operates Soaring Eagle with her parents and sister. "Raising animals from calves to the point they produce milk is extremely expensive. So we found this creative way to address the issue."
The concept of shipping cows to grow, typically in Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado or even other parts of the state, is not new, but the trend is picking up steam, said Scott Gunderson, dairy/livestock agent and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Extension Manitowoc. About 10 farms in Manitowoc County currently ship heifers.
Struggles to find workers, afford feed, handle manure and build shelter are the main reasons behind the trend.
"Farmers want to specialize in milking," he said. "This way, the young cows are raised by people who specialize in heifers."
Manitowoc County is home to about 55,000 dairy cows, Gunderson said, the most since 1987, when he started working for the Extension. And numbers are on the rise in Brown, Kewaunee and Fond du Lac counties, too, he said.
"As my father used to say, land is getting more expensive and they don't make more of it," Gunderson said. "Farmers have to do something."
Shipping heifers makes the most sense for farms with at least 400 to 500 cows, he said. Farms with more than 1,000 head are most likely to ship.
Soaring Eagle farm has 1,000 dairy cows. Maurer said the farm made the change in 2005.
They not only move heifers to Colorado, but own the western farm — The Heifer Authority, near Fort Collins — with six partners, including a Colorado veterinarian.
"We had been sending them out, but we wanted something we had more control over," Maurer said. "When we looked locally, we found facilities that either needed major work in order to be usable, or we were looking at building an extremely expensive new facility. This was a less-than-ideal situation, and a colleague of ours suggested we look out West."
The Maurers visited their friend's farm in Fond du Lac and were happy to see his grown heifers came off the trucks looking healthy and happy.
Now, they ship their own heifers, as well as those of other farmers in northeastern Wisconsin, to their Colorado facility. Trucks go about every three weeks, she said. The Heifer Authority farm has about 7,000 feeding heifers, she said.
The move isn't just good for the bottom line, it's also good for the animals, Gunderson and Maurer said.
The heifers are raised on dry lots, with plenty of room to move around. The Colorado farm gets about 11 inches of precipitation a year and winters are much more mild than in Wisconsin, Maurer noted.
The heifers are fed balanced rations and tended to by experts.
"The heifers do very well," Gunderson said. "I would think they'd be antsy when they come back, but they are calm. They're in great physical shape, they have good, strong legs and their hooves are strong from all those months of moving around. They also have an easier time giving birth because they have good muscle tone."
Gunderson recently talked to a Manitowoc County farmer who was thinking about shipping his heifers.
"They need to think about things like 'Do I need a facility to house heifers?'" he said. "Will they have to rent something? Then, the farmer needs to think about his management time. How much time does he devote to finding the right place that will work out? If he's already working a 15-hour day, does it pay for him to spend time doing this? What's the value of the farmer's own time?"