Ideas outlined for limiting dairy heifer feed costs

Ray Mueller

Kimberly - With heifer raising costs making up 20 to 25 percent of the expenses on a dairy farm without providing an income from that effort for about two years, are there ways to cut that cost without sacrificing the management goals?

Ideas on how to do that were shared at the Extension Service's “Raising Quality Dairy Heifers” program by Matt Akins, a dairy replacement specialist who has been based at the Marshfield research station for the past two years.
The best available survey and research information puts the cost of raising at dairy heifer at between $2,000 and $2,200, of which a bit over 50 percent is for the cost of feed, Akins pointed out. Other costs are attributed to labor/management, fixed expenses, and variable inputs.

Matt Akins

General goals

As a starting point, the operation should have a sufficient number of heifers to support the longer term goals of the farm, Akins stated. Accompanying goals are to reduce the number of days on feed before calving and doing so in part with good feed bunk management, he observed.

Within the realm of feeding practices, the opportunities for controlling costs include high fiber forages, the inclusion of byproduct feeds, limits on feeding, and taking advantage of chances for grazing the heifers, Akins advised.

Working the numbers

When considering the existing culling rate for the milking herd and the mortality percentage for calves on the farm, there's a convenient calculation formula or heifer replacement tool devised by the Extension Service's dairy scientist Victor Cabrera, Akins noted.

“It's hard to talk about” what the appropriate number is because of the several factors in the formula, Akins commented. He listed the adult cow numbers, the culling rate in the milking herd, the age of heifers at calving, death losses among calves and heifers, and plans for herd expansion.

To support a herd size of 700 head, based on the 2 percent mortality rate for calves and a 30 percent culling rate for the adult cows in the Arlington and Marshfield research herds, Akins said 600 calvings within a calendar year with a 50 percent heifer calf crop would accommodate the culling of 75 heifers per year while still leaving 438 head for a one to one replacement of adult herd culls over two years.

Unless the dispensable 75 head are intended to support a herd expansion, culling them would save at least $75,000 per year in feed costs, Akins pointed out. If the culling rate in the milking herd were reduced to 20 percent, only about 290 heifers would be needed over a two-year period for a one to one replacement, thereby freeing about an equal number for a cull sale.

Culling decisions can be based on accurate and reliable data such as genomics tests, pedigrees, and incidence of disease – pneumonia more so than scours, Akins noted. For the timing to cull, he mentioned the first three months of age on a decision based on genomics and later periods if there is an initial concern of not having enough replacements.

Feeding day tab

The key for reducing the number of days on feed before calving is the heifer's age at the time of pregnancy, Akins emphasized. His suggestions are to start breeding at 13 months with an overall goal of pregnancy in most of the heifers by 15 months, provided that they have reached 55 percent (825 to 900 pounds for Holsteins) of their mature weight by the time they become pregnant.

Akins observed that average weights of mature Holstein cows are reaching 1,600 pounds today although the best Net Merit ratings for dairy sires suggest a somewhat lower weight. He reported that California dairies which have purchased calving ahead to 21 months of age are learning that milk production is being hurt.

University of Wisconsin calculations show that an increase of 23 days in heifer raising adds nearly $53 to the cost of feeding that animal, Akins reported. For a group of about 85 heifers, this would increase the annual cost by approximately $4,500.

Ration components

Based on a daily neutral detergent fiber (NDF) intake of 1 percent of its body weight, a pre-breeding heifer should be gaining 1.9 to 2.1 pounds per day, Akins stated. If there's too much corn silage in the ration, its energy component could push that daily gain to an undesirable 2.25 to 2.5 pounds per day, he warned.

With an eye on controlling feed costs for a heifer weighing 1,000 pounds, Akins described a daily dry matter input of 20 pounds with a 50 percent NDF portion coming from a combination of grasses with the addition of stover or wheat straw. That feed would cost about $1.40 per head per day compared to the $1.54 for a 45 percent NDF combination of corn silage and haylage, which would require a 22 pound daily dry matter intake, he said.

Among the grass feed candidates are forage sorghum along with the warm season gamagrass, Akins observed. He reported that American Breeders Service has been seeking gamagrass seed to grow some of the forage for its sires.

Another possibility is to increase the concentration of the same nutrients but limiting the feeding volume, thereby reducing the daily intake by as much as 10 to 20 percent, Akins indicated. To pursue that possibility, he advised having the herd nutritionist provide a least cost analysis and having suitable facilities and management.

Feeding venues

With confined feeding, feed bunk supervision and standards are crucial for controlling waste and costs, Akins noted. He proposed limiting feed refusals to between 1 and 2 percent, making changes for refusals outside of those numbers, and realizing that daily variations can often be tied to extreme weather events.

Based on studies by grazing specialists, the per acre and dry matter unit costs can be reduced by about 50 percent during the time of the year available for pasturing heifers, Akins reported. He set a target of a 1.8 pound per day gain for a 500 pound dairy heifer on pasture for up to 180 days.

By time periods, Akins cited these feed costs for raising dairy heifers – $231 to the age of 3 months, $245 for months 3 to 12, and $428 for months 12 to 24.

To update the cost data, Akins announced that the Extension Service dairy team is organizing a survey of calf and heifer raisers to be conducted this summer. In addition to the traditional practices, he said the survey will cover the use of automated feeders and indicated that input will be sought from 15 to 20 dairy heifer graziers.