Heifers represent the future of the dairy operation, bringing genetic progress to the milking herd. Raising heifers is costly, and improving efficiencies in raising them can have a financial impact on the overall profitability of the dairy business.
Based on University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension surveys, the cost to raise a dairy replacement from birth to freshening (or in the case of a custom heifer raiser, the time the heifer is returned to the owner) is about $2,100. With this being one of the highest expenses in the production of milk, managers are looking at ways to reduce costs from this enterprise. The largest factor affecting heifer-rearing costs is age at first calving, which impacts feed, housing, labor and manure.
The goal of breeding heifers is to ensure they enter the dairy herd in a timely manner, ideally at 22 to 24 months of age. Based on UW-Madison Extension surveys, for each month the age at first calving is delayed past 24 months, it costs an additional $2.75 per heifer per day, or $82 per month.
Heifers can calve earlier to reduce feed and rearing costs but must calve at the ideal weight. Heifer maturity, or the heifer’s weight at calving, is an important benchmark in heifer management. It is the easiest factor to measure and track. Weight at calving determines not only the performance of first-lactation heifers, but also lifetime performance. Heifer maturity is important because the onset of puberty is not age-related, but size- and development-related. Heifer maturity depends on a heifer’s nutrition and average daily gain.