Who’s Gotta Go? Let Heifers Make Your Culling Decisions
If walking into your heifer barn gives you replacement cost anxiety, you may have too many heifers on your hands. It’s a problem that dairy producers are facing across the country with no easy solution in sight.
“It used to be that we could sell our surplus heifers to neighboring dairies and maybe recapture or make money on that sale,” says Pete Dueppengiesser of Sexing Technologies Genetics. “Today, that’s a lot more difficult. We’ve improved our reproduction and we’re seeing heifers being made at alarming rates.”
During the 2020 Dairy Strong conference held in Madison, Wis., both Dueppengiesser and Andy Bohnhoff, a ProAGtive Technologies independent nutritionist, spoke on the economic importance of raising fewer herd replacements.
“A lot of dairy farmers are in a conundrum where they have been very efficient at producing heifers,” Dueppengiesser says. “If we are going to do that, it forces us to cull out others. If we’re going to make space for one heifer, then somebody else has to go.”
When making an inventory management program, Dueppengiesser recommends looking at your current cull rate, age at first calving, the number of heifers you sell and future growth plans. All of these factors contribute to number of heifers that are going to be born. From there, it is time to decide on the number of heifers you actually needto be born in order to maintain or grow the herd.
“If we’re making extra heifers, then we are sustaining costs that we don’t need,” Dueppengiesser says. “What I see at a lot of dairies is that we’ve gotten efficient at making heifers, so that drives our cull rates up because we need to make room for them.”
According to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the cost of raising one replacement animal is an estimated $2,100.
“The cost of raising replacements is a number that a lot of us have a hard time figuring out,” Bohnhoff says. “I think if you take a little bit of time and you figure out how much you’re actually spending to raise replacements, you’ll find that it’s a pretty staggering number.”
Both Dueppengiesser and Bohnhoff suggest implementing a heifer inventory plan to help control the number of animals on the farm.
“By managing the inventory of our heifers, we’re beginning to make a model where we’re controlling the number of animals instead of letting them control us,” Dueppengiesser says.
Achieve an Older Herd
With the average cow leaving the herd between her second and third lactation, it takes approximately two lactations before an animal starts to bring in a return on investment.
“If we make the correct number of heifers, our herd is going to get a little bit older,” Dueppengiesser says. “When the herd gets a little bit older, we increase the pounds of milk per cow and our components start to increase as well.”
Culling older cows before they truly need to leave the milking herd does not allow for them to reach their full profit potential, according to Bohnhoff.
“The best way to achieve a higher milk production demographic in the herd is by taking care of our older cows and not raising too many replacements,” he says. “Right now, I think the dairy industry is under a microscope as far as animal welfare goes and I think if we take care of our older cows and keep those girls in mind, we could make a difference as to how people perceive our industry.”
Genetics Increase Profitability
“Not every animal should be allowed to have a heifer calf on your dairy,” Dueppengiesser says. “I don’t care if you have the best genetics, you still have a top, a middle and a bottom. Make the heifer calves for you next generation out of the best sires and best dams.”
But how do you identify those animals? Dueppengiesser recommends using either parent average or genomics to help make those decisions.
To help reduce the number of animals that enter the milking herd, Dueppengiesser and Bohnhoff suggest mating cows from the bottom end of the herd to terminal crosses such as beef to prevent those animals from having a genetically inferior calf that enters the herd.