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VALDERS – Does the cost of raising dairy heifers compared to today's prices for replacement animals outweigh the practice of raising those born on one's dairy farm?

That “Cull or Not Cull?” question was posed by Fond du Lac County Extension Service dairy and livestock agent Tina Kohlman at the Manitowoc County Forage Council's annual dairy feeding and management day at Zutz Farms.

If the mid-December numbers were the only consideration, an easy decision would be to cull/sell calves or dairy heifers at one of three growth stages and buy other animals as needed, Kohlman hinted. She listed weaning (8 to 9 weeks), pre-breeding phase (about 10 to 11 months), and breeding (13 to 15 months) as those critical junctures.

Comparative calculations

Citing recent costs of raising and market prices, Kohlman noted an average cost of $374 per calf at the time of weaning compared to a replacement purchase cost of $135 at the same stage. Similarly, the most recent numbers were $1,140 and $450 at the pre-breeding age and $1,260 for raising with a purchase price range of $300 to $800 at the breeding stage – the possibility of two or even three replacements for the cost of the on-farm raising of one heifer, she observed.

Based on the latest Wisconsin farm surveys, the total cost for raising a dairy replacement from birth to calving averages $2,104. Kohlman reported. That's “a scary number” compared to the recent prices of $600 to $850 for springer heifers (5 to 9 months pregnant) at the Equity Livestock auction markets in Reedsville and Stratford, she commented.

Related considerations

But the value of genetics in the home dairy herd and other factors need to be considered in making a decision on if or when to cull calves born on the farm, Kohlman acknowledged. What's most important is to “cull with the information for making a good decision,” she advised.

For those engaged in genomic testing, “are you using the data?” Kohlman asked. If the data is used, it can lead to decisions on whether to flush certain animals, breed them with conventional or sexed semen or a beef sire, or use them as a donor or embryo recipient animal, she pointed out.

With heifer raising being the second highest cost center on most dairy farms, there ought to be considerations on health concerns, nutrition quality, and the milking herd's culling rate in determining how many and which calves to raise to maturity, Kohlman remarked.

Due in part to new technologies such as the use of sexed semen and synchronized breeding, there's quite a change from the traditional practice of raising all or nearly all of the heifer calves, she observed.

Health factors

The health factor is a crucial one because of how it affects mortality among calves and heifers, their growth rate, and their performance (milk and reproduction) at maturity, Kohlman stated. For that reason, those which have suffered a respiratory disease or had diarrhea are primary candidates for culling, she suggested.

Citing statistics which document those concerns, Kohlman said “we need to have her for multiple lactations. Put her in a position to succeed.”

Growth parameters

Also regarding the first 120 days for a calf, “nutrition is the name of the game. It's going to make or break you,” Kohlman warned. She called for the feeding of colostrum, deep straw bedding in cold weather, a doubling of birth weight in 56 days, and a height increase of 4 to 5 inches during that time along with “eyeball metrics” by a second or third party to verify if those ideals are being met.

At 2 to 10 months of age, “the sweet spot for average daily weight gain is 1.75 pounds,” Kohlman stated. Anything outside of 1.6 to 1.8 pounds per day is a sign of a problem such as nutrition, health, or housing conditions, she indicated.

When calves and heifers are being raised in groups, identity those which are lagging and realize it would probably be better to cull them rather than to move them back to the next group, Kohlman advised. After breeding, realize that “she eats a lot of groceries at this stage and needs lots of space too,” she pointed out.

Bottom line questions

A couple of bottom line questions to ask are “Am I keeping those I shouldn't?” and “Can I sell replacement heifers?” Kohlman stated. Based on the intention for future herd size and guided by the mortality history of calves and heifers on the farm, check the table (available on the http://dairymgt.uwex.edu website) on how many replacements to raise, she suggested.

Except for today's economics, Kohlman acknowledged that it is “not an easy transition” for many dairy farmers to sell their young animals and then obtain replacements. That's why they ought to evaluate the results of their current practices, such as the average and range in age at first calving, in order to make a good decision for the future, she advised.

For her presentation, Kohlman credited input from Zoetis senior veterinarian Dick Wallace (formerly with the University of Illinois), UW Extension dairy heifer management specialist Matt Akins, Oconto County agriculture agent Sarah Mills-Lloyd, and Eau Claire County agriculture educator Mark Hagedorn.

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