Pasture Deemed Most Affordable Heifer Rearing Environment
January 5, 202
Choosing the “best” system for raising replacement heifers is a highly specific decision for each dairy operation. But objectively assessing the cost of various management systems can help producers navigate that decision-making process.
A research team at the University of Kentucky led by graduate student Anna Hawkins recently developed a highly comprehensive economic model to objectively ascertain the costs of raising heifers from weaning to freshening using the three most popular U.S. housing environments – confinement, dry lot, and pasture.
In a journal article summarizing the project, Hawkins noted heifer-rearing costs often are not fully accounted for in dairy enterprise economics, with many heifer expenses misallocated to other parts of the business. “The cost of raising a replacement heifer is increasing, and plays an important role in dairy enterprise economics,” she said. “Determining the true, on-farm cost of raising replacement heifers is the first step in better managing these costs.”
The research team relied on input and real-world data from dairy producers in Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio to develop the model. Within it, they broke down costs for feed, labor, health, and breeding, along with the actual housing cost for each method.
Feed and labor were the two largest contributing variables to the total rearing cost for all three housing options. These two expenses always totaled more than 60% of overall rearing costs.
Ultimately, the model revealed pasture to be the most affordable replacement management system, with a mean cost per heifer of $1,335.84. Dry-lot housing was second, with a mean of $1,593.57; and confinement housing was deemed most costly, at a mean of $1,919.02 per head. The cost-per-head range spanned a low of $1,266 (pasture) to a high of $2,100 (confinement).
The dual contribution of housing and feed supported the economic advantage for pasture. In confinement systems, building payments, interest, and depreciation accounted for $4.81 per heifer each month, compared to just $1.80 per head monthly for pasture – and this did not include the additional value of the land as a feed source.
The model did incorporate an allowance for pasture maintenance (seed, equipment, upkeep, and agronomic labor) of $31.50 per acre.
Hawkins said pasture also is perceived as the preferred method of cattle housing from an animal welfare perspective. She noted partial use of pasture can help lessen cost burden with no detriment to animal well-being, citing a USDA study that showed heifers adapt to pasture in a matter of a few days, even if they previously were raised exclusively in confinement.
As a caveat to the findings, Hawkins noted the model assumed a constant average daily gain across all management scenarios. “However, there are many reports that average daily gain of heifers in pasture-based scenarios may be below other housing systems, which could expand the rearing period and increase the presented total costs,” she stated.
Changes in land values also could affect the net result for pasture, but so, too, could increasing building costs for confinement housing.