Feed costs reduce tab on raising dairy heifers

Ray Mueller
Now Media Group


Results of the fourth in a series of the Extension Service's surveys on the costs of raising dairy calves and heifers in Wisconsin were unveiled at the Raising Quality Dairy Heifers conferences in February.

The presenter at the session here was Matt Akins, who has been a dairy heifer management specialist at the Marshfield research station farm for the past year after having been on the staff at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

Akins acknowledged that a few of the numbers obtained in the survey for 2015 are already outdated because of the significant fall in the value of young dairy calves at auction markets in recent months. He noted that the selling prices have fallen to about $200 per head compared to an earlier high of about $400.

Survey background

The updated numbers are based on the format devised for the extensive project conducted by Extension Service agents across the state in 2013. The 2013 survey obtained data from 36 operations in 12 Wisconsin counties.

For the 2015 update, information was obtained from 32 operations around the state. They included 12 facilities with tie-stalls, 13 with free-stalls and seven that are custom calf or heifer growers.

Data was collected on the costs of feeding, labor, management and housing facilities. Information on what rates the custom operators are charging the calf and heifer owners was not sought.

Calf-raising costs

Akins pointed out that certain values were assigned to some of the cost sectors for raising calves because of the great variability between operations on tabulating or acknowledging them. Those assumptions included $13 and $22 per hour respectively for labor and management (whether paid or unpaid), a 4.5 percent interest rate, $5 per hundred for pasteurized waste milk and replacement values of $200 for home-made calf hutches and $400 for purchased ones along with $10 per square foot in a greenhouse barn and $15.50 per square foot for a post frame calf barn.

Based on those numbers and the costs and values of pasteurized waste milk and milk replacers, the total costs for raising a calf for average of 68.6 days before weaning rose from $160.25 during the first similar survey in 1999 to $326.07 in 2007, $363.69 in 2013 and $374.82 in 2015. Akins noted, however, that the actual costs calculated by the participating farms ranged from about $250 to $500.

The days on feed average increased from 59.7 in 1999 to 68.6 in 2015. Akins attributed this largely to a combination to the use of more individual hutches and more feeding of milk replacers.

When calculated on daily costs, there were minimal differences between the tie-stall and free-stall operations – $5.63 and $5.79 respectively – while the daily cost for the custom growers was $3.92 per calf. Akins suggested this was due to labor efficiencies and a greater reliance on pasteurized waste milk instead of milk replacer.

Akins observed how the value of dairy heifer calves at birth has fluctuated greatly in the past three years – starting at $150 in 2013 before rising to $400 and then falling back to $200 recently. He also noted that the cost of calf starter rose from 2007 to 2013 because of corn prices but pointed out that this cost was not sought in the latest update.

Heifer feed costs down

The main attention-getter in the update survey was 'the dramatic drop' in the feed costs for heifers, Akins remarked. From 2013 to 2015, the per ton dry matter costs fell from $200 to $150 for legume silages, $140 to $100 for corn silage, $250 to $170 for corn, $375 to $350 for soybean meal and $150 to $100 for weigh-back feeds.

Assigned standardized replacement values were $18.50 per square foot for a bedded pack barn, $20 per square foot for a free-stall barn, $3 per square foot for a concrete lot and 10 cents per square foot for a dirt lot or outdoor lot mound.

According to the survey findings, the bottom line costs (not including the value of the calf) of raising a dairy heifer in Wisconsin rose from $1,099.12 in 1999 to $1,322.70 in 2007 and $1,905.13 in 2013 before falling back to $1,730.29 in 2015.

When adding the cost of raising a calf, the total cost average was $2,031.94 for 2015 compared to $2,268.82 in 2013 and $1,259.38 in the survey for 1999.

Tracking the trends

In examining the cost categories, Akins cited the drop in feed costs for the reversal of the number trend from 2013 to 2015. He was also pleased to note that the average number of days on feed for a dairy heifer has descended from 683 in 1999 to 648 in 2007 and then 630 in both 2013 and 2015.

As with calves, there was virtually no difference between the daily per head costs for the tie-stall and free-stall operations in 2015 – $2.88 and $2.85 respectively – while for custom growers it was $2.32. Akins emphasized that these are averages but suggested that heifer raisers look them as benchmark numbers for their own operations.

At the operations in the surveys, there has been little change in the calving age average for heifers. It was 24.6 months in 1999 before dropping to 23.9 months in 2007 and 23.4 months in both 2013 and 2015.

Reducing heifer feed costs

Although feed costs have fallen, Akins said there are still ways to limit and control those costs. Practices he listed are raising the right number of heifers needed for herd replacements, achieving calving ages of 22 to 24 months, feeding high fiber forages, good feed bunk management, limit feeding protocols and growing season grazing.

On some of those points, Akins suggested using the Extension Service's heifer replacement online spreadsheet designed by Victor Cabrera to tabulate the right number of heifers based on the variables in one's herd, breeding Holstein heifers at 835 to 900 pounds (about 55 percent of their mature weight), referring to Cabrera's pregnancy rate online calculator tool, aiming for just a few remaining feed particles at feed bunks before the next feed delivery and including grasses, gamagrass, straw, forage sorghum or corn stover in rations to accompany corn silage and haylage.

For an 800 pound heifer, Akins cited research that a diet containing the high fiber feeds would cost $1.12 per day compared to the $1.28 for one with high amounts of corn silage and haylage. That's based on eating 1 percent of the body weight (8 pounds) as neutral detergent fiber.

Feeding practices

With a diet that's higher in concentrates, though not including soybean meal, the daily intake can be reduced by 10 to 20 percent but the facilities must be sufficient to allow all of the heifers to eat at the same time, Akins emphasized. He cited research that showed the use of byproducts could reduce the daily dry matter intake to 16 pounds for an 800 pound heifer and thereby save 14 cents per day.

To reduce costs even more, having the heifers graze is another possibility with the caution that supplements would be needed if the pasture quality is not adequate to support an average daily gain of 1.8 pounds, Akins pointed out. Research on that point has been conducted in southwest Wisconsin and Minnesota.

More information on the topic is available at fyi.uwex.edu/heifermgmt. Akins can be contacted by phone at 715-384-9459 or by email to msakins@wisc.edu.

Eau Claire County Extension Service agriculture agent Mark Hagedorn was also a lead coordinator of the 2015 update. He can be reached by phone at 715-839-4712 or by email to mark.hagedorn@ces.uwex.edu.